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Mick Jagger

Lennon and Jagger: Counterculture Revolutionaries, or Cynical Capitalists?

October 15, 2008 11:20 AM
by Shannon Firth
A British historian puts rock stars under the microscope, casting doubt on their status as counterculture icons.
A new study by Cambridge University historian David Fowler questions the legitimacy of two classic rock icons as leaders of the 1960s youth revolution. Fowler says the Beatles and Mick Jagger, though outrageously popular, weren’t heroes, but cynical capitalists: “Far from developing a youth culture, [they] were exploiting youth culture by promoting fan worship, mindless screaming and nothing more than a passive teenage consumer."

Moreover, Fowler said, "The Swinging 60s" in London were a less significant display of youth culture than the forgotten movements of the 1920s and 30s. In 1960s Britain, the members of the youth movement were largely children of privilege and rock stars who lived in country mansions paid for by their songs about equality.

Fowler taps Rolf Gardiner, a 1920s rural revivalist and father of Sir Eliot Gardiner, as a worthy youth culture hero. Gardiner, who studied languages at university, both challenged and shocked his conservative elders, introducing a "back to nature" approach by organizing naked unisex baths in the river Cam. He also brought together students with civic leaders and miners in poorer areas of northern England. However, in drawing some of his ideologies from Weimar Germany, he earned a reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Ultimately, movements such as Gardiner’s were sidelined by WWII and subsequently overlooked.

Fowler’s conclusions regarding the influence of Lennon and the Beatles is contrary to the views of most observers. In 2004, Time magazine included the Beatles as part of a celebration of its 60 years of heroes. Peter Brown, former manager of the Beatles, wrote, "An army of scholars, musicologists, cultural historians and other experts have endlessly analyzed the most enduring symbol of that tumultuous era—the Beatles—for those of us who were in fact there, helping us remember the musical, political, cultural and deeply personal chords the Beatles struck across their life as a band and well after." Brown chronicled the Beatles' rise from the upstart town of Liverpool, where sailors and immigrants thrived on their own brand of humor and music smuggled from the States. The “Liverpudlians” soon after infiltrated "urbane London" with their "cheeky" charm.

Background: Youth movements in the U.S. vs. Britain; The Mods and The Who

According to the Guardian, David Fowler theorizes that universities were an essential component in shaping youth culture and as a breeding ground for new ideas. Consequently, the 1960s-era revolutions in Britain were less noteworthy than those in the United States. Less than 6 percent of 18-year-olds in Britain attended college in the 1960s, compared with 50 percent of 18-year-olds in the United States.

When modern jazz swept through London in the early 1960s, it stirred a new movement of hip urban dwellers, clothed in parkas, riding Vespas and hopped up on amphetamines, eager for confrontation. The BBC’s h2g2 identifies the rock group The Who as the core of the “Mod” culture. The Daily Telegraph wrote at the time that, “The Who are clearly a new form of crime, anti social and armed against the bourgoise.”

Opinion & Analysis: An alternate portrait of John Lennon; was Rolf Gardiner a revolutionary or racist?

Phillip Norman’s new book, “John Lennon: The Life,” portrays Lennon as a compassionate father and a struggling artist, as well as a radical. In what Fowler might assert was another example of clever marketing, a video of Lennon and Yoko Ono that simulated making love cemented his nonconformist bona fides. As Norman recalled, “Not even the wildest punks and post-punks had yet dared stage something like this.”

Patrick Cadogan, author of “The Revolutionary Artist,” quoted Lennon as  saying, “I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere.” Cadogan’s book explores Lennon’s revolutionary period, from 1968 to 1972, when he met with activists such as Tariq Ali, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Phil Ochs.

Derek Wall, a Principal Male Speaker for the Green Party of England and Wales, argues on his blog that Fowler was misguided in branding Rolf Gardiner a hero: “Could this be the same Rolf Gardiner who was a friend of Walter Darre, Hitler’s agricultural minister … who wrote a letter to Goebbels that was published as part of the Nazi propaganda effort. The green far right don’t deserve our praise … I think capitalist musicians are rather more fragrant.”

Related Topics: Comparing 1990s apathy to 1960s revivalism


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