The British National Daily Press and Popular Music c.1956–1975 constitutes a reappraisal of the reactions of the national daily press to forms of music popular with young people in Britain from the mid-1950s to the 1970s (including rock ‘n’ roll, skiffle, ‘beat group’ and rock music). Conventional histories of popular music in Britain frequently accuse the newspapers of generating ‘moral panic’ with regard to these musical genres and of helping to shape negative attitudes to the music within the wider society. This book questions such charges and considers whether alternative perspectives on press attitudes towards popular music may be discerned. In doing so, it also challenges the tendency to perceive evidence from newspapers straightforwardly as a mere illustration of wider social trends and considers the manner in which the post-war newspaper industry, as a sociocultural entity in its own right, responded to developments in youth culture as it faced distinctive challenges and pressures amid changing times.
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About the Author
Gillian A. M. Mitchell is a lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews, UK. She specializes in the social and cultural history of popular music in Britain and North America from the 1950s to the 1970s.
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'TEDDY BOY RIOTS' AND 'JIVED-UP JAZZ': PRESS COVERAGE OF THE 1956 CINEMA DISTURBANCES AND THE QUESTION OF 'MORAL PANIC'
Rock 'n' roll had attracted little attention from the major national daily newspapers prior to mid-1956; with the exception of a few articles in the Daily Mirror which highlighted the gradual spread of the American trend to Britain, there was scant coverage of the genre in the press. Bill Haley's music had featured prominently in Blackboard Jungle, a sensationally violent film depicting American high school life, which had been screened in British cinemas in 1955. However, while more controversial than the markedly innocuous Rock Around the Clock, it caused neither widespread consternation nor any significant reported disruption in Britain. Those incidents of unrest, vandalism and violence which occurred in and around cinemas the following year during screenings of Rock Around the Clock were, thus, principally responsible for bringing the music to the attention of the press and, correspondingly, to elements of the wider public.
Although, while ongoing, these disturbances clearly inspired much feverishly anxious coverage within various newspapers, by late September, reports of trouble, or of arrests or convictions, connected to the film screenings began to fade and, finally, to disappear altogether. This was, to an extent, only natural, as the film had largely reached the end of its circulation period in British cinemas – furthermore, since it had been so widely banned by this time, its potential for 'causing' further trouble had been considerably limited by authorities. Police and local councils had also increasingly prepared themselves for trouble as the reports of unrest had intensified. When the film was screened in a Cleveleys cinema in December 1956, the Guardian reported that Alsatian dogs had patrolled the premises; perhaps unsurprisingly, given such security, 'no [significant] trouble' was observed. The timing of the incidents also contributed to their perceived significance; they were, undoubtedly, eventually eclipsed by turbulent events unfolding in the wider world, and particularly by the Suez Crisis.
Although, prior to the autumn of 1956, rock 'n' roll would have been familiar to some adults – particularly those with teenage children – the stories of the cinema 'riots' constituted the first occasion on which the music became headline news, and was purposely brought to the attention of the British public by the press. This initial flurry of sensational interest was certainly short-lived. Rock 'n' roll did reappear occasionally in the headlines in late 1956 and early 1957. For example, the Daily Express revealed that a scheduled performance at the venerable Royal Albert Hall by American jazz musician Lionel Hampton had been cancelled because the first concert of his October 1956 British tour had witnessed '[r] ock 'n' rollers jiv[ing] riotously in the aisles'. Stories overtly linking rock 'n' roll to instances of worrying juvenile behaviour also occasionally resurfaced. Screenings of Haley's second film, Don't Knock the Rock, in early 1957, sparked several reports of fresh unrest in cinemas in Hendon and Blackpool, but these stories were brief and unremarkable. Otherwise, if this follow-up title had led to more widespread disturbances, most newspapers seemed either unaware of, or else not unduly concerned by, the situation, and, when Haley himself visited Britain in 1957, coverage was, largely, either neutral or predominantly positive. Never again would rock 'n' roll, as a news story, attract such a storm of unremitting press attention, but its introduction to wider society via the pages of the newspapers had certainly been controversial and dramatic.
As the media principally responsible for bringing the stories of the cinema episodes to the public, the newspapers undoubtedly influenced the manner in which their readers reacted to and understood both the incidents as they unfolded, and the music which was so consistently identified as one of their principal causes. It is unsurprising that commentators from Cohen to Cloonan have focused so intensively on the negative and alarmist reportage; there is abundant evidence of widespread condemnation and quasi-hysterical coverage, from the Mail's suggestion that the music constituted 'TNT' to the Mirror's descriptions of 'rock 'n' roll rioters tak[ing] a city by storm'. Such statements typified the tone of the reportage in the popular papers, but also, occasionally, in more highbrow publications. In considering the question of whether this style of coverage helped to contribute to a 'moral panic' surrounding rock 'n' roll, this first chapter demonstrates that several of the 'key ingredients' required for such episodes were clearly present in the newspaper reports.
Defining and Understanding 'Moral Panic'
The concept of 'moral panic' has been much debated and developed by scholars of various disciplines over the past five decades; as an academic term it has become increasingly multifaceted since it was explored by Jock Young and, more famously, by Stanley Cohen, in his Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a study of the 1964 'clashes' between the Mods and Rockers on the south coast of England. Since the phrase has entered common parlance, 'becom[ing] popular as few other sociological concepts have', the potential for misleading or oversimplified interpretations has undoubtedly increased – Nachman Ben-Yehuda emphasizes that, whatever images it may evoke, it should not be equated with either mass hysteria or 'physical panic'. Ben-Yehuda succinctly defines the concept as 'the creation of a situation in which exaggerated fear is manufactured about topics that are seen (or claimed) to have a moral component'. Central to such episodes are particular groups or figures who are cast as 'folk devils'; gangs, criminals and, of course, youth subcultures have, Ben-Yehuda demonstrates, variously been presented as agents, and symbols, of particular moral ills. Indeed, as Angela Bartie notes, there has been a cyclical quality to such incidents. While postwar 'panics' often stressed the 'modern' nature of the perceived crises, ultimately, as Bartie, and others such as Bill Osgerby and Keith Gildart, argue, 'the same anxieties appear with startling regularity' across the various episodes. That young people frequently featured at the centre of such episodes during the postwar decades is also evident. For Jock Young, the incidents on which such 'panics' focus, and the 'folk devils' perceived as their principal agents, frequently highlight an 'underlying moral uneasiness' concerning particular aspects of society. (For example, the 'panic' surrounding the 'Mods and Rockers' ultimately seemed related to anxieties concerning a new 'world of consumption and immediacy which undermined the austerity and discipline of post-war Britain'.) As Gildart notes, '[T] he [perceived] enemy is a deeper symptom of wider problems within society.'
The vital role played by the media as prime 'manufacturer' of episodes of moral panic, and as key generator of a sense of crisis, has also been crucial to the development of the theory. The behaviour of the mass media – and particularly the press – became fundamental to Cohen's original study of the Mods and Rockers. Examining newspaper coverage of the 'clashes' between these two allegedly 'rival gangs' in 1964– 1965, Cohen argued that the style and content of the reportage afforded the incidents an ordered significance which they did not necessarily possess in reality, and also incited further trouble by giving the groups in question 'a stimulus to action'. Coverage across several newspapers, Cohen argued, frequently exaggerated the violence of these incidents – habitually referencing 'riot[s]' or 'org[ies] of destruction' – and described the youngsters involved as having operated in 'gangs', implying a 'structured' aspect to the group identities of the Mods and Rockers. The tendency to repeat such ideas throughout reportage on the events, and to use them to frame coverage of any later, apparently comparable, incidents, created a monolithic 'dominant perception' of the situation, to which 'all subsequent happenings' were 'assimilat[ed]'. Such reportage also became 'self-fulfilling'; galvanized by such demonization, or by the promise of publicity, youngsters would duly assume the parts which press and public now expected them to play. As the 'deviants' fulfilled 'expectations of how [they ...] should act', the authorities rallied against them, alienating and marginalizing them still further. This provided the hitherto 'loose collectivities' of the Mods and Rockers with 'a structure they never possessed and a mythology with which to justify the structure'. Thus, argued Cohen, 'a spiral of deviancy amplification' was created.
Although Cohen's theories are now over 40 years old, many of his original observations remain crucial to continued understanding of 'moral panic'. The risk of oversimplifying or selectively quoting his work to create a convenient, diluted version of moral panic theory remains ever present; as a sociological concept, it has evolved to become increasingly complex, and engaging with it in this more limited fashion risks minimizing the diversity of multidisciplinary scholarship on the subject. Nevertheless, there is value in considering how far Cohen's basic framework for this concept was evident during the 1956 cinema incidents, particularly because of the extent to which he focused on the role of the press in establishing and sustaining the 'panic' of 1964, and also because the existing scholarship on the cinema disturbances and early British reactions to rock 'n' roll (including Cohen's own analysis of these incidents in his work on Teddy Boys) has so strongly emphasized concerted press hostility and negative reactions. In many respects, the newspaper coverage of the 1956 episodes clearly anticipated that of the 1964 seaside 'battles', as analysed by Cohen, in its scope and content.
Elements of 'Moral Panic' in Press Coverage of the 1956 Cinema Incidents
Particular elements required for the potential generation of moral panic are certainly identifiable when examining stories relating to the incidents across the key newspapers. Undoubtedly the press deployed sensationalist, exaggerated language when creating what Cohen termed their first 'inventories' of the incidents. As they '[took] stock of what [had] happened' and offered their initial reactions, the press inevitably influenced the manner in which the public discovered, and understood, the incidents. The inflammatory alarmism which Cohen perceived in press reaction to the Mods and Rockers was certainly abundantly evident here, and exhibited in 'serious' and popular papers alike. The Guardian wrote of 'frenzied rock 'n' roll fans' and 'a mob of youths' 'stamp[ing] their suede shoes in the jive'. The Times headlines highlighted 'police dogs dispers[ing a] London crowd' as 'a gang of about 50 youths' hurled lightbulbs around a cinema. Both of these papers usually deployed the muted label of 'disturbances' when describing the incidents; popular newspapers, however, readily described the proliferation of 'riots'. The Mirror had already established a reputation for creating arresting, deliberately sensationalist headlines, accompanied by compelling illustrations, and its reportage of this story continued such a trend. The '1,000 Rock 'n' Roll Rioters' report painted a lurid image of 'a thousand screaming, jiving, rhythm-crazy teenagers surg[ing] through a city [...] sweeping aside a police cordon and stopping traffic'. In the aftermath of the first London disturbances, meanwhile, the Express carried a front-page story on 'Five Rock 'n' Roll Riots', in which the 'Rock 'n' Roll film' had been seen to 'set rhythm-crazed Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls rioting'. In its coverage of the Manchester disturbances, the Mail evoked similar images of 'rhythm-crazed Rock 'n' Roll teenagers terroris[ing] a city'.
Lack of precise statistics and detail, for the sake of amplifying the threat, also robbed the stories of subtlety; Cohen argued that the national papers, more than the local press, were particularly guilty of such sensationalism, tending to ignore specific context in order to intensify the drama. The coverage outlined above clearly prized vivid prose over precision; where examples were included, they tended, particularly in popular papers, to emerge towards the end of the pieces in question. Similarly, if precise numbers of participants were cited, as opposed to descriptions of 'stampedes' or 'hordes', they seemed rather too exact to be wholly accurate. Declaring that, ultimately, some 60 youngsters had been charged over the incidents, Pete Frame wryly remarked that 'one would have thought it was 60,000 from the way the newspapers reacted'.
In his discussion of the Mods and Rockers coverage, Cohen also highlighted another trend which was equally evident during the 1956 episodes – namely, 'the reporting of non-events' in such a manner as to maintain the threat of imminent catastrophe. Reports of the increasingly widespread banning of the film were often presented thus, as exemplified by headlines such as 'More Towns Ban Film: Disorders Fear after "Rock and Roll" ', which appeared in the Times on 13 September; the eyes of readers were just as likely to be drawn, in this case, to the words 'disorders' and 'fear' as to the heralding of the banning. Coverage also, at times, overtly highlighted the fact that some who misbehaved did so because they sought publicity; they were consciously fulfilling the expectations of authorities and the public. One Guardian-reporter, writing on further 'scuffles' in Manchester cinemas, saw 'three Teddy Boys' observing a photograph of a previous incident displayed on a newsagent's billboard and 'shouting: "That's us, brother, that's us."'
Regarding one of the most central components of Cohen's moral panic – that of the creation and scapegoating of the 'folk devil' – one could argue, in fact, that more than one social group was cast in this role in 1956. Some reports placed the blame straightforwardly on 'teenagers', a much-discussed entity in post-austerity Britain; despite the breadth of such a category, it should be highlighted that by the mid-1950s the term had come, in some quarters, to connote certain negative attributes. Seen by some as an unwelcome by-product of a society obsessed with materialism and gimmickry, and overindulging its youth, 'the teenager' was often considered a shallow, vacuous creature, prodigiously affluent but otherwise culturally sterile and ill-educated. Richard Hoggart's original description of the 'depressing' spectacle of the aimless, American-fixated 'juke box boys' perhaps typifies this perception (although David Fowler has persuasively argued that Hoggart's much-quoted views have been distorted by subsequent commentators). Nevertheless, negativity surrounding 'the teenager' proliferated in this era. Beyond its literal demographic meaning, the term also frequently connoted an unruly, or overtly delinquent, element within working-class culture. As David Simonelli suggests, whereas in America 'the teenager was middle class by commercial design[,] in Britain he was working class by cultural association'; 'his' image was that of an individual 'aggravated with his life prospects and bored [with] the adult world'. For the Express columnist Eve Perrick, the term evoked 'a picture of a bunch of rowdy youngsters'.
Attention was also frequently drawn to the misbehaviour of girls, partly because the 'jiving' which occurred during the film frequently involved the active participation of young women. While, at times, 'terrified' female audience members were portrayed as victims of the chaos, other reports suggested that, in the quoted words of one cinema manager, they had been 'far worse than the boys' – thus implying a further breakdown of social convention. A Guardian report highlighted that, to minimize further disruption at Manchester's Gaiety Cinema, 'a gang of girls' had been turned away, while a Burnley cinema manager reportedly considered 'unescorted young girls' especially 'troublesome'. Meanwhile, a Mail report blamed one of the London incidents on 'a red-haired young girl with a pony-tail hairdo'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The British National Daily Press and Popular Music, c. 1956-1975"
Copyright © 2019 Gillian A.M. Mitchell.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements; Introduction; Focus and Scope of the Work; Chapter Outlines; 1. ‘Teddy Boy Riots’ and ‘Jived- Up Jazz’: Press Coverage of the 1956 Cinema Disturbances and the Question of ‘Moral Panic’; 2. Beyond ‘Moral Panic’: Alternative Perspectives on the Press and Society; 3. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Has Become Respectable’: The Press and Popular Music Coverage beyond 1956; 4. Adventures in ‘Discland’: Newspapers and the Development of Popular Music Criticism, c. 1956– 1965; 5. Reversals and Changing Attitudes: Newspaper Coverage of Popular Music from the Late 1960s to the Mid- 1970s; Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography; Index.
What People are Saying About This
‘Beyond merely reporting the phenomenon, the popular press played an enormous part in shaping our understanding of the importance of popular music to emergent youth culture. Mitchell’s finely tuned historical sensibility, allied to her rich textual illustration and expert analysis, makes for an accessible and authoritative contribution to the field.’
Martin Conboy, Professor of Journalism History and Co-director of the Centre for the Study of Journalism and History, University of Sheffield, UK
‘Concise, accessible and engaging – like a good pop song – this book offers a rich study of the press’s coverage of the new music cultures of the “long sixties”. The analysis is nuanced and even-handed, and provides valuable insights into the social changes of the period.’
Adrian Bingham, Professor of Modern British History, University of Sheffield, UK