British Popular Culture and The Music That Followed – Music Essay
I’m going to comment on the British pop culture of the 60’s and 70’s using as examples two of the most famous songs of the Beatles: Help! and Imagine. I am going to comment on those texts at the same time I place them into the historical and social context of the time.
Firstly, it is important to consider how it all began. The mid-1950’s was a difficult period for Britain as well as for most of European countries. Britain was still trying to recover itself from the problems the war brought about. This was a grey time , with British youth consoling themselves with their dreams and with imitations of the images which they saw on the cinema of life for kids in America(good cars, good clothes and a lot of money). At the same time they could hear the latest Rock ‘N Roll coming front he States. In a word, British youth culture was totally dominated at that time by American trends and styles.
The British music industry in the 50’s was almost exclusively an American imported product. It was controlled from London by middle-aged men totally out of touch with the needs and wants of the youth audience.
Out of this atmosphere a uniquely ‘British’ musical trend did emerge late in the 50’s. This was called ‘Skiffle’: “kind of folk music played by a small group, mainly with rhythmic accompaniment to singing guitarist”. The accompaniment was, more often than not, a washboard, and the material performed was normally of traditional US origin. Apart from that, from London and the South there came acts such as Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Johnny Layton and Tommy Steel.
In the provincial cities the seeds were being sewn for a world-wide musical and cultural revolution. In ports such as Liverpool, there had developed a music culture fiercely independent from London. By the early 60’s in these cities a large and highly competitive band scene emerged, in which hundred of local bands performed the latest imported songs to get the attention of the young audiences, hungry for anything authentic and new. In 1962 there were many great groups in this scene but the audiences decides that The Beatles were number one.
The first song Help! was written in 1965 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The lead vocal was the first. This song was number one in Britain for 9 weeks from 14th August 1965. The other one Imagine was written by the same authors in 1971 and the lead vocal was again John Lennon. This one was number one for 2 weeks from 30th October 1971. Both texts have similarities but also differences, mainly because they are written with some years of difference and that means a process of maturation on the authors. I’m going to comment on the first text in an isolated way and then I will start with the second one, and at the same time, I will establish the comparison between both.
Help!, as I have mention before, was written in1965. By that year there were in Britain several problems, such as the crisis arising in 1964.This crisis which lasts till the 70’s was the cause of political and economical problems: the decline of productivity, the increasing pressure of Trade Unions, the balance of payments…There was also the question of the war, though in those years Britain was not involved in any war (except for the undeclared Cold War) it was important the question of re-armament. That problem was followed by the reaction of people who was against nuclear weapons and manifested it trough several demonstrations: the Ban-the-Bomb marches. For all these reasons they could be saying “Help!”.
The song goes on “I need somebody” but “not just anybody” that is, it could be applying to the fact that very few years ago, and in some way still in those years, Britain was somehow dependent on America. That situation came from the “Marshall Aid Program”, financed by America to help the UK and other European nations to recover after the war. In that way, Britain was at the mercy of America in some questions and this was felt as a threat. So, with “not just anybody” he could be referring to the Americans, he needs help but from his context , from the people who is in the same situation as himself.
It could also be interpreted as a protest against the situation of unemployment, because of the continuous decline of industry and the dramatic raise of people working in services. If it is so, in the second stanza he means that now everything has changed since in the former years there were not those types of problems. In the 50’s there were almost full employment due to the necessity of reconstructing the country after the war. Thus, in that period the authors doesn’t need that kind of help because unemployment was not a problem.
All those interpretation could be acceptable when analysing the two first paragraphs isolated, but when I arrived to the last sentence of the second paragraph and go on reading, I came to the conclusion that what the author is really referring to is the new situation of young people in Britain in those years. I mean, the youth of Britain had started to get an increased spending power and independence in the early 60’s. They had started to get better jobs and they could afford even a motorcycle. For that reason the authors could be saying “I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors”. I interpreted this sentence in the way that because of the different role of the youth in society they had also to change their own point of view and to open their minds to the new possibilities that are presenting for them at that moment. Because of the same reason they are saying “get my feet back on the ground”: the situation is much better for them but things could change again, so is important to have in mind this and to maintain the feet on the ground.
With this change in the standard of living of young people and thanks to music bands such as The Beatles, Britain became the centre of the music, fashion and pop worlds, and for a few years everyone wanted to film in Britain too. It was full of creativity and optimism which was totally contrary to the mood of the country a few years previously. The song could be referring to that fact too.
The song continues with this topic since it says: “my life has changed in so many ways” and then started to explain some negative sides of that situation(the next three lines)Now he’s independent but independence is not always good. With this, it could also be referring to the fact that Britain has no more power over the colonies, it is no more an Empire, so it is “independent” in a way (though now it is more dependent on America). The lost of the colonies meant a great shock for most of the British population who had to become accustomed to the idea of not being an Empire any more. Because of that reason they could be saying “I feel so insecure” or “When I was younger…But now these days are gone , I’m not so self assured”. Then “Now I fond I have changed my mind and opened up the doors” : people are forgetting that and trying to continue with their lives though in a very different way.
Imagine has many differences with the previous text. It is completely immerse in the hippie culture that was arising in England as an influence of the US. This song became almost an hymn for those activist, above all, against war. These groups started to appear around 1965. In that way it is a point in common with Help! because it deals with the youth of those times though in a different way: it talks about subcultures. Those subcultures were mainly against the traditional culture and they stood out because of their clothes.
The first stanza of this song has to do with religion. It explains how a world without those beliefs and distinctions would be better. At that time religion seems to be insignificant as a part of British identity. People started to believe less in God, and the song says that it is good.
The second paragraph deals with wars. It remembers the period of the two world wars where a great amount of countries were confronted and where too much people died. It emphasises again the no necessity of religion which could also be a cause to fight. At that time there was the problem of the Cold War, and it is difficult to remember a time without any war in the world, it is almost a dream: “Imagine all the people living life in peace”. That was one of the main aims of the hippies, to fight against war.
The third paragraph puts its emphasis in the question of money and the social classes. In the 60’s/ 70’s social classes did not seem to be so clearly distinguished thanks to the Welfare State, although there were obvious social differences according to the criteria of money. The song “imagines” a world without social distinctions, it is an idealistic point of view very close to the idea of Utopia. The world would be “ A brotherhood of man” without discriminations caused by differences of social status, race or gender. People could “share the world” without fighting for it.
To conclude the song, it goes to the central idea: the subculture of the hippies. It is saying that those ideas are not coming from the mind of a single person but many people share that way of thinking. The last two lines are inviting us to join that movement and to live as they want: in peace.
Both songs have in common that they talk about the youth. But they have different perspectives since when the first one was written all this movement was beginning to consolidate while in the early 70’s it was already developing in a great way. Help! is questioning the past and whether the future will be better in the way that things are changing. With Imagine things are more clear and there are whole youth subcultures with his own ideologies to try to change the world or to try to make it clear that they are against the way it works.
In conclusion, it all has to do with a process of maturation of both authors who felt that things were beginning to change but who still had not clear what position thy should take till a few years later, when things were more clearly defined.