Wednesday, February 06, 2008

British tolerance and the 1960s pop scene

A year ago I pointed out that some British films of the 1940s had to be censored before they could be shown in America. This puts in question the common view that the Britain of the period was hopelessly genteel and insular.

Equally, my recent reading has suggested that one of the reasons for the extraordinary flowering of music in Britain in the 1960s is that we were a very tolerant country, at least when compared with the USA.

In his memoir White Bicycles, the record producer Joe Boyd ("I was there, and I do remember") writes:

By the mid-sixties, America was experiencing the "generation gap". Parents whose kids returned from school or college with long hair and a rebellious attitude often went into shock. Children were disowned, "grounded", locked up, beaten, shorn, lectured, or sent to psychiatrists, military school or mental institutions.

In Britain I visited pubs where earringed boys with long hair stood drinking a Sunday pint next to their dads in cloth caps. Neither seemed the least bit concerned.

Attitudes on race were just as different on either side of the Atlantic. Boyd describes a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon:
This was middle America's worst nightmare: white teenage girls screaming ecstatically at Chuck Berry.
Boyd noticed a familiar figure looking on:
I blurted out "That's John Lee Hooker." The girls around me started yelling, "John Lee? John Lee? Where? Where?" I pointed towards the wings. They started chanting, "We want John Lee, we want John Lee" and were quickly joined by half the hall - hundreds of kids.
Boyd goes on:

In that moment, I decided I would live in England and produce music for this audience. America seemed a desert in comparison. These weren't the privileged elite, they were just kids, Animals fans. And they knew who John Lee Hooker was!

No white person in America in 1964 - with the exception of me and my friends, of course - knew who John Lee Hooker was.

This racial divide in American music can be seen - to continue this blog's recent preoccupation with the Spencer Davis Group - in Alan Clayson's biography of Steve Winwood:

Before the next single, "I'm a Man", barged its way up the Hot Hundred, many US radio listeners were uncertain of the group's skin pigmentation, so exact were Steve's soulful Negroid intonations. Europeans may have been similarly mystified when "I Can't Stand It" had wavered from the Duchy of Luxembourg nearly three years earlier.

In North America, where race was a touchier subject, there were difficulties over airplay until the Group's Caucasian ancestry was comfirmed by a promotional film shown on television.

So let's hear it for dear old tolerant Britain.

1 comment:

Werner said...

Hello from Canada,

Not only was the attitude at that time much more tolerant there was a feeling of safety in Britain that I have never experienced here in western Canada at any time. I was born in Colchester and most of my family originated from the Midlands although what is left of my relations have since moved to the West Country. I was in England only in the 1960s and I'm fairly sure the situation in the UK has radically declined in the intervening decades.