The Seeds of Social Destruction - Charles Radcliffe (July 1966)

Mod & scooter, 1960s
Mod & scooter, 1960s

A text from Heatwave issue 1 exploring British youth culture in 1966.

Submitted by Red Marriott on August 24, 2006

One of the most interesting aspects of revolt within the more advanced capitalist states since the war has been the emergence, one after the other, of groupings of disaffected youth. Such groups are not isolated phenomena; they exist wherever modern, highly bureaucratised consumer societies axist; in the USSR (stilyagi), France (blousons noirs), Britain (mods and rockers), in Holland (provos). They have little immediately in common but their implicit rejection of the positions allocated to them in society.1 Let it be understood this is not primarily a class matter but a matter of the wholesale destruction and frustration of dreams.

Adults, be they left wing journalists or right wing magistrates2 , can be relied upon to attack every aspect of youth rebellion and most revolutionaries likewise see in it no more than a symbol, or perhaps symptom, of capitalist degeneracy; they address their antique pieties to the 'problem' secure in the knowledge that it cannot really be important since it was never mentioned in the old revolutionary sacred texts3 . They have, as befits the changers of societies, been content to condemn without understanding, showing only their own pitiful ignorance and shallowness. By now it should be obvious - even to the traditional revolutionaries and other preservers of instinctive ignorance - that teen-groups are not merely the neatly tagged symbols of the alienation of whole sectors of youth from society at large but, in their extreme forms, amongst the few groupings in society which have presented, and continue to present an instinctive, sustained and potentially shattering social threat to stable society. Youth revolt is not necessarily a panacea; neither is it necessarily the precursor of social revolution; rather a grim-humoured reaction to the frustration implicit in this society and this manner of living. It is one of the few things in this society worth serious defence and support.I welcome youth's rage: I share it. I support their outrages because I wish for explosions infinitely more brain-peeling than in their wildest, most socially profane dreams. In this article - a short and necessarily limited introduction - I want to note some aspects of the post war unofficial youth movements in Britain.

The Teddy Boys...

... named after their preoccupation with Edwardian (1900-1914) fashion were the first really cohesive post-war youth grouping in Britain. Their emergence coincided with post-war 'reconstruction' and also with the consumer invention of 'teenage'; their number was increased by young adults whose youth had been lost in the 'pre-teenage'austerity of the early post-war years. The extravagance of ted clothes (drape jackets with velvet collars, elaborate brocade waistcoats, 'slim-jim' or 'country and western' ties', 'drainpipe' trousers with huge turn-ups and heavy car-tyre shoes and later Italian 'winkle-pickers'), the outlandishness of their hairstyles (massive duck's-arses at the back and Tony Curtis-type quiffs at the front and thick sideburns) and their aggressive arrogance earned them the immediate hostility of generations who had learned to see in thrift both a moral code and a social cement4 . Although many were only sartorial rebels, the teds, as a whole, were the most overtly violent of all youth groupings; many carried and used coshes, flick-knives, 'cut-throat' razors and bicycle chains. They fought in gangs - usually a gang from one area against a gang from another area. They were broken up - either by each other or by the police. They were constantly harrassed and arrested and fiercely criticised by every element of respectable society. Above all they were feared.

In fact the teds' attitudes were closer to those of their 'elders and betters' than any subsequent groups: The teds were socially unacceptable precisely because they acted out the values of a world where force and corporate brutality were the officially postulated simple answers to all problems, because they were unable to accept the living death to which they had been so casually consigned or the non-sequiturs of a society which demanded of its citizens an uncomprehending acceptance of dumb non-violence towards internal authority and ferocity towards officially-designated external enemies. For all their failings the teds were able to sense their real enemies. In the end, however, they were the easiest rebels (en masse) to deal with; they were progessively conscripted out of existence. They had their last real fling in the mid-fifties; they tore apart cineemas like avenging furies and jived in the aisles to the early rock 'n' roll films. Now teds are conparatively rare, confined for the most part to the working class areas of the larger Northern industrial centres,

The Ton-up Kids

... the coffee bar cowboys arrived shortly after the teds, the product of a rather more affluent society. Motorcycle gangs in Britain have been relatively small and relatively well behaved; nothing like California's Hells Angels has ever happened here. The appeal of motorcycles - speed, power, danger - has been almost exclusively to working class youth. The middle-class kid typically has a small sports car; the working-class cowboy has a bike - cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, easier to tune, more exciting and less impersonal to use5 . Cowboys are not interested in converting anyone to their way of life; they vary so much anyway that almost the only real points of contact between them lie in their leather clothes, their bikes and the attitudes forced on them by society's reaction to their enthusiasms. Some gangs play 'chicken' games - most often a race against a record on a cafe juke-box - while others see their bikes mainly as an exciting means of weekend escape from employment, dull urban environment and nagging adults; speed is an optional, if delirious, bonus. Some aim simply to bug the squares, either in mocking the police who, particularly in the provinces, are quite scared of the cowboys, or alternatively in burn-ups round middle-class housing estates which stop only when a high proportion of inhabitants are openly annoyed or, better still, furious.

The cowboys, like most people, are unsympathetic to those who do not share their preoccupations; they are not particularly sympathetic even to each other. Birds (girls) are usually seen as sexual ballast; something to hold the rear wheel on the road and to be shafted afterwards. But again, most people are less honest about more or less identical attitudes to women, The ton-ups do not worry very much about tragedy, either on a personal or cosmic scale. Most of them have friends who 'fucked-up' on a run; they are philosophical about death; accidents are one way out of the fuck-up routine of dead end jobs in a dead end society. Most cowboys work simply to keep riding. They are not interested in success; they live for weekends, days off, nights at the few 'caffs' where the owners do not see social responsibility in terms of keeping cowboys out. They accept, more or less, that one day they will opt out and join the squares. Some compromise earlier than others by joining ton-up6 priests collecting for charity or organising rock 'n'roll church services to spare the church the need to face its own total redundancy. Many tonups do seem compulsively respectable; appearing on TV panel discussions about teenagers (with all the painful insistence that under the rebellious exterior lurks humble goodness) end helping dear old ladies across the road. However, the last cowboy I knew well told me that most tonups think 'priests and that load of shit' every bit as bad as the 'snotties'7 . He seemed quite convinced that the rebellion went deeper, pointing out that the only reason tonups 'doing good' attracted attention was because it was so unusual. In any event he was able to get rid of a large number of Spies for Peace leaflets at London's ton-up centre - the Ace Cafe - after the 1963 revelations.

The Beats

If the English beat movement had its roots in the beats of the USA, particularly as mythologised by Jack Kerouac, it soon developed its own character. Less interested in artistic achievement than American beats apparently were, the English beats were, for the most part, content to disaffiliate and leave it at that. They usually dropped politics, if they ever had any, when they went beat. The hard-core beat movement was
probably never more than a few hundred strong but its influence went much wider; over the last ten years any number of kids have gone beat. Once having done so it is inevitably more difficult to rebuild or prop up the illusions on which society functions. The beats are possibly the gentlest of all the rebels; they have been attacked, and even killed, in those interstices of society where they have been involuntarily forced into contact with social delinquency but their main interest has been to keep moving, 'cutting out' of any 'scene' after a short time. Beat communities have been notably, and often chaotically, libertarian and notably short-lived. If the beat rebellion is essentially short sighted (within an unfree society every one, even the last comitted disaffiliate, is unfree and it is impossible to talk of rejecting society when to do so one has to be able to beg, borrow or steal the wherewithal for existence from people who, however reluctantly, continue to live within society) it is nevertheless magnificent in its nonchalant, long-haired contempt for 'straight' society and in its proud indifference to the dreary disgust of all the officebound pen-pushers, bureaucrats and wearers of the regulation weeds of the living dead.

The Ban the Bombers

The beat movement reached its height at much the same time as the anti-war movement - in the late fifties and early sixties; in fact the two groups were deliberately confused with each other by press and public. The more deracine elements of the anti-war movement often looked beat and often associated loosely with beats. The political adults distrusted beats, partly as scavengers and partly because they made the already too unrespectable political kids look even less respectable - this last factor may yet turn out to be the beats' most singular and most valuable contribution to British politics. The young people who made the nuclear disarmament movement the largest and most influential youth movement in British history8 were the post-Suez generation. The Aldermaston March, started two years after Suez in 1958, became the centre of those young people's activities; a happy-serious carnival-protest, a gathering point for remarkably varied people ranging from hardened-arteried veterans of various Communist Party front groups to dedicated Quakers, from old ladies with curious pasts to dedicated wild-eyed kids burning with self-sacrificing seriousness. After the second march the image was permanently fixed - youth. A great deal of space has already been devoted to the ban-the-bombers and most people who read this will either know (or not care) why such a generation emerged, what it did, why and how it did it and how in the end it declined and shattered into its myriad components as CND ceased to be umbrella enough for all the disparate ideas which had been attracted to it. CND educated youth - usually out of CND and into all the sad little splinter groups that are the only authentic, political., British, folk-art form.

The Ravers

...were possibly the least distinct and, in their classic form, shortest lived group of all. They had some beat characteristics and rather tenuous connections with the anti-bomb movement but their main preoccupations were jazz clubs and jazz festivals; this was the period when ersatz traditional (trad) jazz, as purveyed by Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and others was inordinately popular. (Partly trad 's popularity arose in reaction to the decline of the small fifties' beat scene; it was easy to dance to and jazz clubs were among the few places where teenagers could do more or less as they wished without adult interference. Partly it arose because the musicians did not take themselves too seriously and were often simply good-time ravers9 .)

The raver movement took its 'ideology' from the stale-ale-and-spermatazoa humour of the musician-ravers and its dress, if loosely, from that of the Acker Bilk band - 'music-hall-cum-riverboat-cum-contemporary-folk-art' with C N D symbol decorated bowlers, umbrellas, striped trousers, elegant jackets. The chicks had long hair, wore ban-the-bomb type uniform (duffle coats, polo-neck jerseys very loose around the hips, and jeans). The ravers moved not only in the world of British 'jazz', but also on the fringes of the beat and political worlds. Chris Farley, now conoected in some way with Bertrand Russell's Peace Circus, once interviewed a group of ravers at the Beauliea Jazz Festival for Peace News and was obviously distressed by the fact that most of them had no practical programme beyond the election of Acker Bilk as Prime Minister. One West Indian observer10 described them, in 1964, as "mainly frantic English teenagers inspired in recent years to new heights of happiness by the indestructible and tireless Negro 'faces' happiness habits nightly in the West End. In their over-enthusiastic aping of Negro dances, over indulgent drug taking, they actually outdo their mentors in self destruction if not in jail sentences".

The ravers were, on the whole, distrusted by other groups with whom they came in contact; the beats used the term 'raver' derogatorily and the nuclear disarmers treated the ravers' 'superficiality' with superior amusement and occasionally annoyance. (The fact that many of the serious kids are now regretting their aloofness is a reminder that we all change.) The ravers, as such, died with the trad jazz boom but the 'philosophy' continues and there are once again groups calling themselves ravers. The term has likewise regained its approbatory meaning after its frequent critical use by the CND generation.

The Mods and Rockers...

... began attracting attention in 1963; the mods as a developing group11 , the rockers as a yet-unchristened continuation of earlier streams - the teds and, more particularly, the tonups12 . The mods (modernists) originally favoured short-hair, wool shirts, casual suede or corduroy jackets, lightweight ankle-length trousers and casual sneaker-type shoes -- very much of the continental type. Mod girls wore collaborateur-type hair styles, drape leather overcoats and calf-length dresses which came up as time passed but were, in the early days, extended to ankle-length for visits to clubs, etc. The rockers were the entrenched traditionalists of teenage fashion -- long ted-style hair, sideburns, jeans with large turn-ups, leather jerkins or bum-freezer jackets and winkle picker shoes. The girls' clothes echoed those of the boys - at least [out] of working hours. At work they were in the teenage fashion mainstream. Rockers were barely a group as such; they were put together by the mods as 'them' figures - hot, breathy, archaic squares to the mods' ice-cold, up-to-the-second hipsters. In 1963 the first fights between the two groups broke out - in the City of London during lunch hours. What usually happened was that a group of mods began jeering at - and later bundling with - a rocker delivery boy. But such fights were nothing to those which broke out at the various seaside resorts during public holidays the following year. By then the mods were a large group and their outlook was formed.

In general they owed much to the West Indian hipsters (faces); much as the white-negro hippies of the USA took the soul-ethos from the urban ghetto Negroes so the mods reflected, in a slightly less conscious way, some of the patterns of British Negro existence. Their coolness, their drug-taking (primarily of the goof-ball/lid-flip type at first), their musical taste and many of their expressions (eg, 'face') derived, more or less directly, from actual or fantasy life-patterns of the hip 'Spades'. (At least in this sense the mods were a sophistication of the ravers). The mod's rebellion was perhaps more experimental than any other groups' - except possibly the beats and the disarmers - and the mods despised the rockers and others precisely because they were bedded in the past. "You can tell us by the way we walk - feet out. Rockers are hunched. We hope to stay smart for ever, not shoddy like our parents". The mod distaste for parents and rockers was reciprocated. "I can't think why he turned out like this. We always gave him everything he wanted and we have good values for him to see" ... the harrassed parent of an arrested mod. "Orgy - kids shagging birds all over the shop; all bloody sex and pills. It's no way to live:'... a rocker on a typical mod party in a disused
London house. Mods, despite the time they spend decking out scooters with ephemera and accessories, have a less emotional relationship with machinery and a less mechanical one with girls than most rockers. For all that they are less tied up with 'going steady' than the rockers. They distrust particularly the rocker's attempts to fit into adult society: "We don't talk politics or religion - we hate attempts to make religion with it. Its always rockers on those telly prograrnmes".

At the height of the mod 'thing' in 1964 mod fashions were changing at break-neck pace. Beatle-type clothes has been exhausted, along with Beatle-music; by the end of 1963 and mod clothing, at the beginning of 1964, reflected the taste of the new London in-groups - The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds. Later West Indian blue-beat music was 'in' beyond the small circle of very hip faces with whom it had been the music for some time, before it too was overcome by the next enthusiasm.

The whole furious-consumption programme of the mods seemed to be a grotesque parody of the aspirations of the mods' parents, typically lower-middle or upper-lower class suburban. The leaders of mod fashion were changing and re-fashioning clothes over night to keep up with each other; the situation became so desperate towards the end of the year that the reigning 'faces' simply refused to allow new faces to take over. By the end of 1964 the hard-cult was over, although the mods still exist, largely as loosely organised scooter gangs. There may still be a few minor mod-rocker skirmishes to keep blimpish magistrates busy and furiously absurd in those quiet seaside towns where the bourgeois go to living-die like hanpy squires and the kids go to explode the unholy peace of a death structure. But if the heyday of the mods is probably over the youth rebellion is not, as is indicated by the recent case of the Matlock Hills Trogs13 and many other continuing elements of humanising chaos.

The Future - Can't get no Satisfaction

The various youth groupings I have discussed are not part of a cohesive movement; some presented a violent threat to good order, some presented an ideological challenge, some merely an annoyance. Their attitudes were and are varied; the teds a partial reflection of the violence of adult mores; the tonup kids robelling at those points where their will crossed society's; the ban-the- bombers a complete rejection of their birthright (the majority were almost certainly war babies; the movement, perhaps significantly, arose in the first of the post war years in which there was no conscription); the beats rejecting everything; the ravers living for kicks; the mods annoyed by and determined not to emulate the shoddiness of their parents. The backgrounds too were different, although attempting to classify heterogeneous youth groupings is dangerous. Broadly the ton-ups, rockers and teds were working class. The ban the bombers were broadly middle class. The mods, beats and ravers come between the two. But class origins, for the most part, are irrelevant to the youth revolt. Between the groups there was and is little contact. Teds fought each other, mods fought rockers, ban the bombers and beats co-existed, ban the bombers hardly ever associated with those right outside politics, except, rather awkwardly as preachers. There has been some interchange between the groups. A number of beats came from the cowboys and, rather curiously, became mods, typically at that stage when mods were discovering British R'n'B. The art school beats were not only the first r'n'b audiences - listening to the early protagonists of the music like Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner - but became the first real popularisers of the form. As mods adopted some of the more obvious characterists of the beats so some beats became, almost by accident, mods.

All these movements can be seen as the groping of youth towards explosive self-expression and show that young people are not content simply to become the well ground sand in the joints of a crumbling, oppressive, adult-delinquent society. They are expressive both of consumption-crazed society and of rebellion against corrupted mores; both a visible and audible symbol of a society whose effusions, institutions and attitudes are hopelessly disoriented and no longer completely intelligible to anyone, least of all to those authoritarians who have unconsciously created them, and a reminder that it cannot long continue without the chaotically engineered safety valves finally breaking down and shattering both their own Heath Robinson ingenuity and the society they protect. In a society which has everything, everyone wants nothing.

What is important about the youth revolt at this stage is not so much what it is but that it is: that, in some ways and however hesitantly, however unsurely, youth recognises its exploiters and is, if only temporarily, prepared to pay them off in a currency they can understand. The explosions are imperfect and impermanent; the rage is fused and canalised; the violence is exploited and utilised; the dreams become advertising slogans. But the revolutionary of all people must be able to sympathise with and encourage such revolt; if nothing else it increases the bourgeois' suicidal paranoia which is, in a very real sense, the revolutionary's best friend. The suburban mental derelict, his world threatened by the phantoms of disquiet - car tyres deflated, windows smashed, flowers stolen, sleep destroyed, business threatened by THE CONSPIRACY, status constantly challenged by neighbours and business colleagues, wife at the mercy of ravaging back-door tradesmen, sanctum permanently challenged by nameless youth tyrannies - sees in all youth a savage innocence and a mindless threat to his well being; his mind (torn already by the frustrations of working into an emotional gutter), his body (obese on the non-foods of a death-oriented society), his prestige (so intangible, so dependent on irrelevancies and re-actions which can never be based on concrete evidence) are not enough to address the challenge.

It is this disquiet-factor that all rebel youth has in common, that threatens the carefully moulded suburban fantasies whose function is as a contraceptive against reality, sexual, social and cultural. It is this, together with the unrepressed violence and viciousness of those in authority dealing with youth rebellion, that should have told the revolutionaries they were dealing with rather more than a symptom of the degeneracy of a system. For the facts proclaim that youth revolt has left a permanent mark on this society, has challenged assumptions
and status and been prepared to vomit its disgust in the streets. The youth revolt has not always been comfortable, valid, to the point or helpful. It has however made its first stumbling political gestures with an immediacy that revolutionaries should not deny, but envy.

Charles Radcliffe

Brief Bibliography

Generation X (Library 33)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Pan)
Rave Magazine
Mods, Rocker and the Revolution (Rebel Worker pamphlet 1)

Libcom note

This page originally included three texts which have now been given their own pages on Libcom. The other two texts were:

Heatwave thirty years later - (Not bored #26, 1996)

Review: Dancin' in the Streets by Franklin Rosemont and Charles Radcliffe (eds) - Red & Black Notes, Canada

The original introduction on this page read:

We group together here 2 texts about the UK Heatwave magazine, which existed for 2 issues in 1966 - and the wider political scene it was a part of, which included its links with the US Industrial Workers of the World and American Surrealists. There then follows a text from issue 1 of Heatwave.

For another, later text by Heatwave editor Charles Radcliffe and others, see here

  • 1At least in sensing this much the authorities show themselves more aware of the reality than most revolutionaries.
  • 2For example Paul Johnson and J.B. ('Call me Fathead') Priestley in The New Statesman and the magistrates who dealt with teds, mods, rockers and ban the bombers.
  • 3The reaction of the Communist Party to USSR youth rebels is instructive and hilarious; Moscow teengangs are dismissed either as 'high spirited student-types' or 'bourgeois-minded, jazz-corrupted decadents'.
  • 4Ted fashions were a curious throw back to the Good Old Days (otherwise known as GOD) when gay irresponsibility was the chief social virtue and wars were theoretically still heroic, romantic and colourful. They were also a powerful reaction against the drabness of the war and post-war years. They were a conscious imitation, by working class youth, of aristocratic fashions at the last point in time when a really rigid class (and parallel fashion) structure existed. Had the teds been Edwardians they would have been unable to wear such clothes. In an odd way therefore these clothes seem to have been both a case of following upper class fashion ideas (albeit archaic ones) and snubbing the upper class by doing so.
  • 5I remember doing the ton (100 m.p.h.) with a cowboy on the A.1, in Durham; after stopping the cowboy rubbed down his bike and checked it for damage, treating it with a care and respect that really astounded me.
  • 6Though members of the famous 59 Club - a respectable, priestridden rocker club - were at the 1964 Clacton riots.
  • 7One of a wide variety of designations for the police - an abbreviation of 'snot-gobbler'. Other terms include the slightly square 'rozzer', 'shit-sucker', 'copper'(square), ', 'gestapo', ' fuzz', 'law'.
  • 8Anyone who doubts that CND was primarily a youth organisation should read contemporary reports of Aldermaston marches.
  • 9See, for example , George Melly's delirium-fest autobiography, Owning Up (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • 10C. Lindsay Barrett in Revolution, January, 1964.
  • 11They were actually beginning as early as 1962.
  • 12The two terms are now used synonimously.
  • 13See Freedom, April 30, May 21, May 28.