David Simonelli, associate professor of history at Youngstown State University, must have plundered archive after archive, at least the ones of the NME, Melody Maker, Billboard and the BBC as well.

Working class heroesAt the center of his study is the approach to the shifting image of a young generation of musicians and their fans, by then having the financial power to consume, influence and altogether alter the perception of class.

This time, however, “class” was not understood as a class struggle, where the lower classes desperately tried to ascend to a higher level; this time formerly socially marginalized groups found new pride in their status.

This was due to new freedom of expression, fashion, music, and nevertheless, a combined financial power that gave these people a certain say in terms of creating consumer products and thus being a force on the market.

One major aspect of the success of bands like the Beatles and the Who were their working class origins, or what seemed to be these origins; combined with the anti-middle class notions, the anti-establishment ideas of style, aesthetics and sexual conduct, a “working class background” seemed to be the one notion of authenticity and of opposition.

The values promoted by those bands (and their record companies) were readily affirmed by their audiences, who followed the attitudes of their idols in terms of fashion, style and opposition to mainstream politics and values.

Considering the many changes that took place from 1964 to 1966 alone it is most amazing how not a political party, nor a pamphlet, book, or religion changed British society (and the rest of the world afterwards) but something else did the job: rock and roll musicians and their musical “offspring” who symbolized all authority originally associated with prophets, manifests or revolutionaries.
At the beginning of this massive change, the images of one by then idealized and hardly recognizable concepts of “working class” and “authenticity.”

It is the enormous collection of details from newspapers, magazines, interviews, biographies and of course, the “texts” of this phenomenon, namely the lyrics of many songs of the era that often seem like a parody on this very youth culture. Numerous allusions to class “differences,” Victorianism, the idea of respectability and middle class values exist in one of the most influential and successful bands of the 60s, the Kinks and genius songwriter Ray Davies picked up these like no one else. The rebellious nature of the new British youth, mostly actually of working class origins, was carefully (and very funnily) opposed to old social notions of difference; and Davies presented the results of this process.

Hardly surprising, as in many revolutions (or turmoil that is very close to it) the current revolutionaries started attacking the originators of the movement. In this case, it was the verbal, musical, lyrical and pop-cultural fight against “the establishment” and its ideas. Sadly, by 1965, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones already were part of this establishment. The new underground scenes, being fresh, undiscovered and commercially unexploited as the Beatles and the Stones once were, now challenged the style of the established (and commercially successful) originators of the revolution. Thus proving one of Simonelli’s main thesis right: the mostly mythical and altogether badly defined idea of “working class” origins values and traditions as a smartly used label of commercial exploitation of this youth culture in the 60s and 70s. After all, this is not the first book on British rock music in the sixties and seventies or the influence of a working class background on music making. Nevertheless, Simonelli’s title in a way reads like one long witty essay, luckily missing much of the academic language that often renders texts on pop culture illegible.

For example in this paragraph, where he enlarges on another aspect of authenticity. Concert goers having been somewhat mislead by self-elected “experts of musical authenticity,” like the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s (EFDSS) authority on folk music, crowds failed to see the originality of great American artists. “To the British folk audience, the blues was the acoustic music of poor blacks from the Mississippi valley, not the electric blues of American cities like Chicago whose musicians and groups filled the R&B charts in America in the 1950s. … For example, Muddy Waters toured Britain under the auspices of the EFDSS and audiences actually booed him for playing electric guitars. To accommodate them, on his next tour of Britain in the mid-sixties, he came only with his acoustic guitar, prepared to cater to his audience’s discerning tastes. However, by then, the rise of R&B-based pop groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, British audiences were well-used to the idea of electric blues…. Thus, to his consternation, Waters was actually booed again for showing up on stage without electric band! To his eternal credit, he showed up a third time in the 1960s, not with a machine gun, but with his electric band, forgetting his obnoxious audiences the first two times, and was a monstrous hit.”

In addition we find a detailed account of the British rock music scene, subcultures, management tactics, band contests, band lineups and tons of exhaustive first-person accounts.
If you want to learn about the many facets of the beginning of the British rock circus… this book is just for you. I could hardly put it down. And I still learned new facts about the Mods, the beginning of the counterculture, the British Folk scene, the roots of progressive rock and the birth of a complex cultural style solid enough to become a powerful British export good.
This title comes as close to my personal “recommended reading” as it gets.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert, (c) 2014

David Simonelli. Working Class Heroes. Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s. Lexington Books, 2012, 301 p.