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From the archive: The Menace of Beatlism

In February 1964, then future NS editor Paul Johnson wrote an article attacking the Beatles and all they stood for. It became the most complained-about piece in the Statesman’s history.

Get down with the common people: Annus Mirabilis, Rose Blake's tribute to Larkin and the spirit of the Sixties. © Rose Blake

Mr William Deedes is an Old Harrovian, a member of the cabinet and the minister in charge of the government’s information services. Mr Deedes, it will be remembered, was one of those five ministers who interviewed Mr Profumo on that fateful night and were convinced by him that he had not slept with Miss Keeler. I remember thinking at the time: “If Deedes can believe that, he’ll believe anything.” And indeed he does! Listen to him on the subject of the Beatles:

They herald a cultural movement among the young which may become part of the history of our time . . . For those with eyes to see it, something important and heartening is happening here. The young are rejecting some of the sloppy standards of their elders . . . they have discerned dimly that in a world of automation, declining craftsmanship and increased leisure, something of this kind is essential to restore the human instinct to excel at something and the human faculty of discrimination.

Incredible as it may seem, this was not an elaborate attempt at whimsy, but a serious address, delivered to the City of London Young Conservatives. Not a voice was raised to point out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing a stitch. The Beatles phenomenon, in fact, illustrates one of my favourite maxims: that if something becomes big enough and popular enough – and especially commercially profitable enough – solemn men will not be lacking to invest it with virtues. So long as the Beatles were just another successful showbiz team, the pillars of society could afford to ignore them. But then came the shock announcement that they were earning £6,250,000 a year – and, almost simultaneously, they got the stamp of approval from America.

This was quite a different matter: at once they became not only part of the export trade but an electorally valuable property. Sir Alec Home promptly claimed credit for them, and was as promptly accused by Mr Wilson of political clothes-stealing. Conservative candidates have been officially advised to mention them whenever possible in their speeches. The Queen expressed concern about the length of Ringo’s hair. Young diplomats at our Washington embassy fought for their autographs.

The growing public approval of anti-culture is itself, I think, a reflection of the new cult of youth. Bewildered by a rapidly changing society, excessively fearful of becoming out of date, our leaders are increasingly turning to young people as guides and mentors. If youth likes jazz, then it must be good, and clever men must rationalise this preference in intellectually respectable language. Indeed, the supreme crime, in politics and culture alike, is not to be “with it”.

Before I am denounced as a reactionary fuddy-duddy, let us pause an instant and see exactly what we mean by this “youth”. Both TV channels now run weekly programmes in which popular records are played to teenagers and judged. While the music is performed, the cameras linger savagely over the faces of the audience. What a bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal! The huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store makeup, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the broken stiletto heels: here is a generation enslaved by a commercial machine. Behind this image of “youth”, there are, evidently, some shrewd older folk at work.

And what of the “culture” which is served up to these pitiable victims? According to Mr Deedes, “the aim of the Beatles and their rivals is first class of its kind. Failure to attain it is spotted and criticised ruthlessly by their many highly-discriminating critics.” I wonder if Mr Deedes has ever taken the trouble to listen to any of this music? On the Saturday TV shows, the merits of the new records are discussed by panels of “experts”, many of whom seem barely more literate or articulate than the moronic ranks facing them. The teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual, a collective grovelling to gods who are blind and empty. “Throughout the performance,” wrote one observer, “it was impossible to hear anything above the squealing except the beat of Ringo’s drums.” Here, indeed, is “a new cultural movement”: music which not only cannot be heard but does not need to be heard.

If the Beatles and their like were in fact what the youth of Britain wanted, one might well despair. I refuse to believe it – and so will any other intelligent person who casts his or her mind back far enough. What were we doing at 16? I remember reading the whole of Shakespeare and Marlowe, writing poems and plays and stories. At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; I can remember the excitement even today. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on the Beatles and their ilk.

Are teenagers different today? Of course not. Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures: their existence, in such large numbers, far from being a cause for ministerial congratulation, is a fearful indictment of our education system, which in 10 years of schooling can scarcely raise them to literacy. What Mr Deedes fails to perceive is that the core of the teenage group – the boys and girls who will be the real leaders and creators of society tomorrow – never go near a pop concert. They are, to put it simply, too busy. They are educating themselves. They are in the process of inheriting the culture which, despite Beatlism or any other mass-produced mental opiate, will continue to shape our civilisation. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times