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Rock 'n' Roll, The Sex Pistols and Youth

It was once generally accepted that young people were to be seen and not heard. They were constantly being told to have respect for their elders, to dress decently, to watch how they talked, etc. etc. Youth were supposed to accept being “under the thumb”. In the 1950s this was changed. Due to their improved economic position, longer schooling and earlier maturity young people began to reject traditional roles and search for a new identity. Rock'n'roll music burst upon the scene. This music was exclusively for the young. It was loud, it had energy, it was audacious, it was about sex and it released the inhibitions bottled up inside of young people.

The term “rock'n'roll” was stolen from the black American rhythm-and-blues singers who used it as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. When the American record companies discovered that youngsters were buying these records they were both surprised (pleasantly, no doubt) and embarrassed. Surprised, because previously rhythm-and-blues was exclusively black music, played by blacks for black audiences. Embarrassed, because young white Americans were now going into the black districts to search out R-&-B records and attend concerts, which was unacceptable at the time (the Ku-Klux-Klan were furious). However, the record companies did not want to miss a good thing and so they re-wrote rhythm-and-blues songs to exclude the sexual content (“Dance with me Henry” for “Work with me Annie”) and had them recorded by white singers. Despite the efforts of the record companies and a wave of protest from the media, the churches and police forces from countries all over the world, rock’n’roll retained its basic character and popularity with young people for many years.

Ever since rock’n’roll “Youth” have been in the news. They have had an identity as a consumer group. The manufacturing industries discovered that they had a huge new market. A survey carried out in Britain estimated that people between the ages of 13 and 25 were drawing about £1,480 million a year in wages. The accompanying report concluded: “. . . there is now a business as well as a moral and psychological necessity to understand young people” (Dr. Mark Abrams, 1959). Once this was apparent, manufacturers turned over a large amount of their production to commodities aimed at the “youth market”. Note the high proportion of advertising today which is directed towards young people.

Youth have been associated with several “subcultures” over the last two decades. There were the “mods” who were around in the middle ’sixties. Their main hallmark was their dress: Paisley shirts, tartan socks, the mini-skirt etc. The styles had to be new, modern. Later on came the “hippies”. They rejected what they called the “materialistic” outlook and placed the emphasis on “awareness” or “aesthetic sensibility”. The ultimate hippy protest was to “drop out” of society by taking on a different life-style, forming small communes etc. The movement eventually died when it was realised that underneath all those mystic trappings the hippies were just another enormous group of consumers who bought gramophone records, stereos and drugs instead of cars, televisions and houses.

Next came the “skinheads” who had their origin in the East End of London, which at the time was going through tremendous change. Population was on the decrease, the docks and industry in general were moving out, the jerry-built terraced houses were being replaced by jerry-built tower blocks. The youth of this area formed the skinhead gangs and through them reacted violently to the violent changes going on around them. Unfortunately most of their anger was directed at immigrants who were, to them, a useful scapegoat. Consequently “Paki-bashing” became one of the activities pursued by some skinhead gangs. The latest sub-culture is the “Punk Rock’’ scene which has caused an almighty scare in the newspapers (and consequently among parents) in Britain. The “Sex Pistols”, it seems, will bring about the downfall of everything that is “good” about young people today. What happens when we compare the reaction to punk rock to what was said about rock’n’roll fans 20 years ago? “Notice! Stop: Help save the Youth of America. DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS. The screaming idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America”. (The Story of Pop, No. 1, 1974).

We’ve taken a very brief look at different ways youth have behaved at different times. One might conclude from the above that youth are rebellious. Many of them attempt to be “unconventional”. As for revolutionary, no! Certainly not! The sub-cultures mentioned above have been to a large extent “protests” and not practical attempts to solve social problems. We would also point out that a large section of young people are and always have been thoroughly conformist; the sections chiefly dealt with here and those who rub society up the wrong way.

What are the problems that face young people today? Do they differ that much from their parents? Just how wide is the so-called “generation gap”?

Few people, it seems, are happy at school. How often do we hear “School work is boring” or “School is a waste of time”? Why is there this feeling towards schools? We would say it is because schools do not operate with the objective of interesting pupils but of stuffing in facts and information which will enable you to go out to work for an employer for the next fifty years of your life. The education system is there to satisfy the needs of industry and commerce. The recent speeches of Jim Callaghan and Shirley Williams testify to this. Of course there is no guarantee that you will get a job when you leave school; you may well go straight onto the end of the dole queue.

Another complaint of the young is that there is little or nothing to do in their leisure time. Apart from the youth clubs with their emphasis on table tennis and orange squash, and maybe the odd disco, what is there? Well there’s television. Watching tv is the most time-consuming leisure activity of 65 per cent. of all 16-year-olds. (Britain's 16-year-olds, National Children’s Bureau Report, 1976).

The older generations suffer the same problems. While the young are bored and frustrated at school, their parents are bored and frustrated at work. If the only escape from TV for many of the young is the disco, then for many of the parents it is the local pub. The so-called “generation gap” is a myth. Most people want a reasonable standard of living, decent working conditions; nobody likes being fed up or bored and yet nearly everyone is. Why?

We say it is because of the system of society in which we live — capitalism. A system based not on the satisfaction of human needs but on the realization of profits by a small minority. In capitalist society, making a profit is what matters. If goods and services are not going to make a profit they will not be produced, regardless of the social consequences. Thousands go without a home and millions go hungry because it is not profitable to produce houses or food far those who cannot afford the market price.

What then is the solution to today’s problems? We say that it is the establishment of Socialism:

    a world-wide system of society based on COMMON ownership, not state or private,

    a democratic society WITHOUT leaders,

    a system in which things will be produced solely for the satisfaction of HUMAN NEEDS,

    where education will be freely available not only for the young but ANYONE seeking knowledge.

That is Socialism. That is what it means. Do young people agree with us? Do they want to establish Socialism? The answer is, sadly, only in small numbers. However, things are improving in that young people nowadays do show more interest in the world they live in and the solving of problems they see around them. We think the following is a good example of this.

A gang of skinheads as “The Collinwood” were asked to write a book expressing their views about such subjects as schools, jobs, violence, etc. After thinking hard about what they had written they came to this conclusion:

    "We need to change society. Change frightens people, any people. Not only the upper classes but our parents and us too. Change means revolution. People, even those who write and talk about revolution, think it means smashing everything up, bombing and shooting and killing people. They don’t hear when you talk about peaceful revolution, they still imagine bombs and things. They don’t realise that we don’t want to harm them as people but change the way we live. Most of the people who talk about revolution think of themselves as leaders and they want to take over after the revolution and replace the people who control us now. Instead of believing in equality they believe in power.

    It is through equality that we get rid of class and exploitation." ('The Paint House: Words from an East End Gang'. Penguin, 1972. Edited by Susie Daniel and Pete McGuire)

These words came from youths who, just two years earlier spent a part of their time “Paki-bashing”. Day by day there is more evidence why problems arise in capitalist society and the establishment of Socialism comes a little closer. We urge all workers (young or old) to consider our ideas, to decide whether or not Socialism is a practical solution to today’s problems. Socialism won’t be brought about by magic. It has to be understood, desired and worked for. If you agree with us you will be welcome to join the party (which incidentally has nothing as patronising as a “youth section”) and participate with us in the work for Socialism.

Ian Westgate