Jumped up, marked down,
We’re falling around
Like low life
Hung up, strung out,
We’re touching the town
Like low life
#151; from “Like Low Life”, Gary Marx, 2003
Teddy boys and mods, punks and skinheads, rockers and ravers. There are few places that have enjoyed such a rich subcultural life as Britain during the post-war years. During those decades, adolescence in our conurbations has been marked by sequences of youthful gangs and groups, allegiances and alliances, most usually attached to a permutation of popular music’s capricious mood. So teds, in the decade after the Second World War, became wed to the raw expressions of early rock ‘n’ roll, mods danced to American soul sounds in the mid-‘60s, skins perversely stomped to Caribbean ska and bluebeat while taking a brutish dislike to black immigrants, in the later years of that decade, then punks raucously rode the new wave in the ‘70s.
Nor were these the only subcultural moments to lend colour to those ever changing times. If it wasn’t homegrown tribes like the followers of glam or the New Romantics, casuals, clubbers or crusties, then American styles would also be co-opted and adapted. English beatniks tended to follow trad jazz rather than be-bop, indigenous hippies might be Led Zep fans rather than psychedelic heads, and London b-boys would construct a worldview based around Brixton rather than the Bronx or Compton.
What also happened in the midst of this testosterone-fuelled cavalcade is that a number of British-based academics developed radical interpretations of these subcultural manifestations, which ran counter to earlier US notions. While many American commentators of the ‘50s interpreted transgressive youth behaviour as juvenile delinquency, plain and simple, the fresh voices of the ‘60s approached these often anti-social coalitions from a less condemnatory position. Analysts like Jamaican social theorist Stuart Hall, cultural critic Dick Hebdige and other members of the influential Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, a lynchpin in the establishment of that new discipline, or multi-discipline, called cultural studies, offered fresh takes on these diverse subcultural expressions. In their Marxist model, the groupings formed by working class teenagers represented a potential threat to the complacent certainties of the dominant culture, symbolic resistance to perceived subordination.
It is some time since the Birmingham school’s heyday and the years have moved inexorably on. Faith in the power of subcultural or countercultural forces to bring about social reform, never mind, revolution, has been long buried. Today youth still takes matters of style seriously; the skateboarder or the surfer, for instance. But issues of substance manifestos for change, say are regarded as rather less significant to the gangs on the street, the groups on the beach. Deep down, these teen displays are really rather shallow. Maybe they always were.
Such matters of leisure and pleasure, particularly those of the youthful kind, were very much on the menu during September, when sociologists from around the world gathered for a three day symposium in the Midlands town of Northampton to contemplate the current state of play in the field of subcultural studies. The event, “Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes”, tended to conclude that those older means of de-coding mods and punks as gutter battalions for the liberation of the proletariat, had rather lost their potency. Yet the notion of subcultural life retains an enduring appeal. If we’ve been teenagers, if we’ve been drawn to the thrills of popular music, it’s highly likely that we’ve had some association, deep or fleeting, with the habits and foibles of the local branch of our subculture of choice. I remember years of carrying the free flag of shoulder-length hair as part-time hippie, only to find my true musical bolt-hole in the pogo pits of punk as the Clash and the Buzzcocks delivered their incandescent racket.
At the conference, organised by a rising star of this academic field, Paul Hodkinson whose recent volume Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture has provided the first close dissection of a subculture from the inside there were certainly ageing mods, maturing bikers, retired punks and adherents of all stages of that global tide of clubbing that has become an almost ubiquitous feature of social interaction. The event also reminded us that subcultures are no longer merely the opiates of youth: we stay younger longer and still cling to the tenets, perhaps, that once bound us to our 16-year-old blood brothers and sisters.
One of the evenings we headed for the Race Horse pub in the centre of Northampton, an important catalyst for British goths in the early ‘80s. Bauhaus, who later re-emerged as Love and Rockets, made their mark there and the affect of that subcultural surge has left a flutter of ripples 20 years on. Black garb, black hair, black eyeliner set against a ghostly pale face, well in evidence in the bar’s backroom, has become a look, a statement, from Berlin to Bradford, Birmingham, England to Boulder, Colorado. On stage, Pretty Dead Girls, all charcoal shades, played out their mock gothic postures.
It reminded me, too, that a former student of mine and something of a legend in UK goth circles (he studied popular music at Leeds University during the mid-1990s), has recently broken a long silence. Gary Marx, founder member of the Sisters of Mercy with Andrew Eldritch, has just released his first collection of songs in well over a decade. Pretty Black Dots is hard and harsh, but not without flashes of world-weary wit. More Jacques Brel than Marilyn Manson, its style is expressionistic, its tone jaundiced rather than jaunty, relating shady tales from the underbelly of life.
And I guess that’s what, perversely, subcultural experience promised: a chance to taste some of the more bitter flavours, the more exciting possibilities, experience mysterious subterranean impulses, in that curiously thrilling limbo between childhood and adulthood. Yet now, the old British clans are largely dead; the clearly defined boundaries between those youths who wore their hair long or short, wore flares or drainpipes, listened to rock or soul, rode scooters or motorbikes, are long eroded.
In the 2000s, there’s more of a mix’n'match approach to adolescence, a less parochial view of the planet, and a tendency to think much more widely than just your street, your neighbourhood, your borough. Just as the sounds on the dance floor borrow from Detroit and Trenchtown, Bombay and Cape Town, so those who groove to them take their sartorial vision, their individual style, from something closer to multiculture than subculture. And that, I think, has to be a good thing.
Notes: Gary Marx’s new album Pretty Black Dots is available at GaryMarx.com
Paul Hodkinson’s book Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture was published by Berg in 2002