The Birth (and Death) of the Popular Music Counterculture

‘Counterculture’ may be a term only coined in the sixties, but its reach stretches back into the movement of 18th century Romanticism, and its foundation in the poetry of William Wordsworth. In truth, it’s always been about the poetry. From the writing of Bob Dylan in the folk revival of the sixties, flanked by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, to Patti Smith; laying down the groundwork of punk in the 1970’s. A lack of poetry then is perhaps to blame for the lack of an emergent counter-culture in recent decades; although it may be the most lyrical of musical mediums, rap music, which seeks to lay the path for a future resurgence.

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William S. Burroughs & Jack Kerouac

The point of a counter-culture is that exists on the fringes. When it becomes populist then naturally it becomes a culture to be countered: such is the ebb and flow of the music industry over the past sixty years. The beat generation was the first counter-culture to boast popular music as one of its facets, and the first to emerge since the Bohemian movement of mid-19th century Europe. Encompassing the likes of painter Jackson Pollock, author William S. Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg, the scene emerged in response to the clean-cut and wholesome, but tepid state of being eminent in post-war America, and folk-revivalism in the heart of Greenwich Village was an essential aspect of the movement. Dylan travelled to New York in 1960 in order to visit and play for Woody Guthrie in hospital, where he was dying. Dylan called Guthrie ‘the true voice of the American spirit’ but would himself become the forefront of the movement that reacted against the very foundations of American culture. Songs like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A’ Changin’ became icons of the definitive counter-culture movement: anthems for civil rights triumphs of the day. It was a movement which embraced sexuality and gender fluidity half a century before such notions have come to be popularised recently. It is typical of the nature of counter-culture though that the inception of the beat generation’s musical voice, embodied by Dylan and his fellows Josh White, Oscar Brand and Susan Reed, has now come to be considered an era that was the inception of popular music as we know it today. On albums such as Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan turned to rock instrumentation, and the begrudging head of that particular movement split it at its roots.

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The Rolling Stones in 1965

Given the general English disposition, it took a few years longer for counter-culture to take hold in Britain’s affluent baby boomer generation, but it did eventually in the form of punk and rock and roll. Dylan was a major influence on The Beatles, but it was the Rolling Stones, whose song ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ encapsulated the disgruntled voice of a generation who, after the disbandment of national service, essentially had little to do. While the mods and rockers had it out on the beaches of Brighton a year earlier in 1964: the poetic, psychedelic counterculture of Greenwich and LA took form in working class aggression on UK shores. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin’s off-stage antics certainly held a certain anti-establishment bite, while David Bowie wore a dress on the cover of the Man Who Sold the World, but it took until 1975 for underground music to solidify this angst into a counter-cultural movement, and again poetry took the lead. Patti Smith’s Horses opened with the lines ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’: the start of a poem written by Smith and printed on the rear of the LP packaging. Horses may not have paved the way for the punk’s aesthetic in quite the way the likes of The Velvet Underground, Raw Power and The Sonics did, but her lyrical exploration of death, godlessness and breaking free of your oppressive forefathers was about as punk as you could get.

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Patti Smith

England’s second wave of Angry Young Men in twenty years was in full swing by 1978 with the arrival of The Clash, Black Flag, The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys, and was started by a woman. Songs like ‘London Calling’ and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ were angry indeed, and as politically non-partisan as Woodie Guthrie had been. However, the punk movement also brought with it a new disconcerting edge to counter-culture: the art of doing it for the sake of it. The Sex Pistols are British icons, and for a time at the forefront of punk, but watch an interview of them defending ‘God Save The Queen’ and it’s clear they can do little but rant and rave. Punk was counter-culture self-mythologised, its anti-establishment ethos stripped down to plain old anti-everything. This became clear around the time the special edition ‘Anarchy in the UK’ Mastercard came out last year.  It’s not a long leap between them and the likes of Five Seconds of Summer in respect to sincerity.

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The Dead Kennedys

Counter-culture normally arises from difficult situation, and that is what makes the emergence of hip-hop music in the early eighties a worthy successor. Like Woodie Guthrie and Patti Smith, the forefather of rap music is Gil Scot-Heron, a beat poet. Rhyming over a home-spun instrumental gave a voice to the voiceless projects, and groups like De La Soul, Public Enemy and N.W.A. propelled yet more civil rights anthems into the mainstream. You can’t get much more anti-establishment a song as ‘Fuck Da Police’, but you’d be hard pushed to find a more sincere sentiment either. As a counter-cultural signifier though, the genre’s non-partisan voice has now become far too weighted towards the underground. The likes of Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar represent something of a return to the eighties leaning towards mindfulness and openness, but Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock and Brother Ali remain firmly in a niche. Grime is the go-to modern proxy for punk but, although clearly a movement, the genre could hardly been deemed a counter-culture since in its lyrics, and in its ethos, the genre speaks to the culture directly. It may be anti-establishment, but somewhat pointlessly, and the infatuation with money, Nike and iPhones hardly inspire a revolutionary spirit, but rather point towards a creative dead end.

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Chance The Rapper

If the tail end of punk seemed a little vacuous, and if grime most certainly does, then there’s a reason for that: the counterculture was never about musical revolution, it was about an ethos. The spirit of the music came before the medium of its delivery, hence its often poetic leanings at inception. Hip-hop was, and still is largely, built out of soul and funk samples, and the form the beatnik movement took was folk music: an old English tradition. The next counter must be built upon ideas, not a search for new sounds to relay them. Charlton Heston, a past cinematic proponent of the beat generation, once said ‘never trust anyone over 30.’ He should know: he’s 78 now and a spokesman for the NRA. But with the prospects of modern British youth looking decidedly bleak and a swathe of quite tepid pop music providing a culture to truly be countered; the time is nigh for the next revolutionary movement in art, in literature, and in music. Just where it will come from, though, is yet to be seen.

Theodore J. Inscoe

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