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Ron Briley: Review of David Simonelli's "Working Class Heroes: Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s" (Lexington Books, 2013)

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

For anyone coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Working Class Heroes will evoke the rock soundtrack of youthful rebellion. But unlike the many memoirs by musicians which tend to dominate rock music literature, awash with accounts of sex and drugs, David Simonelli, associate professor of history at Youngstown State University, employs the British rock scene from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols to make important observations on the politics, economics, and social class attitudes of Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.

Beginning as a doctoral dissertation at Tulane University, Working Class Heroes is certainly an academic work, but one which is readily accessible to the discerning general reader who takes music seriously. To place the music scene within historical and cultural context, Simonelli draws upon commentaries from music journalists and critics during the 1960s and 1970s. In pursuing these sources, many from periodicals which only enjoyed a short run during the heyday of British rock following the emergence of the Beatles, Simonelli found the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) newspaper archive at the Edinburgh University Library as well as the National Sound Archive at the British Library to be indispensable archival collections. Simonelli also discovered the History of Rock series, detailing the rise of British rock into the new wave bands of the 1980s, at the National Sound archive to be an essential source for examining the growth of the British rock scene.

Drawing upon these sources, Simonelli fashions a complex argument regarding how rock and roll, which evolved into the seemingly more sophisticated concept of rock music by the mid-1960s, defined class attitudes more than pocketbook issues. Simonelli argues that rock music provided an environment in which young people were able to redefine their perceptions of class identity, writing, “People who grew up with rock and roll in the 1960s and 1970s made class more relevant to their own circumstances in an increasingly professionalized, post-industrial world by basing their ideas of class in cultural tastes as opposed to wage packets and living circumstances” (xiv). According to Simonelli, young people of various social backgrounds identified with rock musicians as rebels against the post-Victorian cultural attitudes of the middle class to which their parents aspired. Youth identification with rock culture was enhanced by parental disapproval, the condemnation of the cultural establishment, and in the case of Britain a public broadcasting system (BBC) which attempted to dictate popular taste.

However, as Simonelli astutely develops, this image of the rock and roll working class hero searching for authenticity and in rebellion against an artificial and commercial establishment is filled with irony. For example, rock musicians who wanted their artistry to be acknowledged and taken seriously embraced professionalization, a middle-class standard of accepted behavioral expectations. In addition, at least since the Renaissance, artists seeking to challenge established standards and forge new approaches have been dependent upon the work of wealthy patrons. Thus, a filmmaker wanting to criticize capitalism makes an entertaining film which proves to be commercially successful. Has the Marxist artist been co-opted by the capitalist system? Is it possible for the rock and roll artist to criticize the establishment while signing lucrative contracts with the recording industry? How does the rock and roll musician avoid commercialization and selling out?

These are the questions which Simonelli addresses in his narrative. The Beatles were initially dismissed by British critics as departures from traditional standards of folk music and the music hall. The rock group also challenged established standards regarding grooming and flaunted middle-class morality. Simonelli asserts, “By being working-class in image, writing their own songs, ignoring the larger adult audience in favor of appealing to youth alone, and expressing their opinions on society, the Beatles created the rudiments of a lasting image of the rock and roll musician -- in pursuing these ideas, they became an idea themselves” (19). After their huge success in the American market, however, the British establishment took a second look at the working-class lads from Liverpool. The Beatles were embraced as artists in the great classical tradition of young musicians such as Mozart.

Although the Beatles could still produce cutting-edge music such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the cultural embrace by the establishment and even parents led many in the youth culture to question the band’s authenticity. The rebellion against authority was inherited by groups such as The Rolling Stones who seemingly flaunted middle-class values in their music and life style. But as a counterculture developed around the concept that rock music could help usher in a revolutionary new world free from the tyranny of the past, Mick Jagger and his band mates were often denounced as hedonists who sought pleasure in sex and drugs rather than committing to the revolutionary struggle.

When the revolution failed to materialize, some rock bands, such as Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, fashioned the progressive aesthetic in which commercialism was rejected in favor of more elitist artistic and professional standards. Singles were shunned in favor of concept albums, and at their most extreme, Simonelli notes, progressive musicians were self-indulgent and ignored their audiences. The elitism of progressive rock produced such counter movements as heavy metal, hard rock, and glam rock.

By the mid-1970s, Britain was suffering from growing unemployment as well as inflation. British society and rock music, which was becoming the new established order, seemed in need of real working-class rebellion, and the punk movement was born. Attacking the professionalization of music and middle-class standards of decorum, groups such as Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols seemingly represented anarchy. Simonelli, however, argues punk was just as compromised by commercialism as other versions of rock, while violence and racism also discredited the musical movement which evolved into the more acceptable and less aggressive New Wave.

Simonelli concludes that by the 1980s, “Thatcherism divided much of the rock and pop music community from the real political gravity of the country, the same way it attacked the unity of the working classes and their unions. The result was the exposure of the irrelevance of music as a mode of rebellion against the establishment: when the mode of the music changed, only the discos in the city shook” (246). Nevertheless, the British rock music of the 1960s and 1970s was important. For one, in a deteriorating economic situation with a balance of payments deficit, the exports of British rock music continued to garner considerable profits for British record companies. Instead of being overwhelmed by American culture as many in Britain feared, British rock music found a lucrative market in the United States. In addition, Simonelli asserts that the music rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s which crossed social boundaries was a good thing for Britain. The rebels of the 1960s and 1970s are the contemporary establishment, and Simonelli insists, “Britain is a better place today for heaving chosen a forum, rock music, in which to address its industrial divisions and provide a language with which to overcome them” (246). Still, Simonelli acknowledges that the musicians of the 1960s and 1970s all too often ignored issues of race which still need to be addressed in British society.

In addition, rock music tends to be a masculine environment, as Simonelli concedes, and thus issues of gender receive little analysis in Working Class Heroes. Some Marxists will certainly take exception to a book on class which fails to mention Karl Marx and prioritizes cultural over economic values. And those who may be disappointed by Simonelli’s lack of focus upon the music itself should recognize that the author is attempting to employ rock music and the images associated with it to shed light upon British society in the 1960s and 1970s. This provocative book will likely stimulate debate among working-class scholars, but Simonelli has certainly demonstrated the importance of taking rock music and its cultural manifestations seriously. Despite the efforts of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to dismiss it as “only rock and roll,” rock music and culture have a great deal to say about the larger culture.