Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

14
Meet the Beatles
Cultural and Intellectual Developments,
1945–1979

On May 15, 1966, Time magazine ran a cover story on “Swinging London” that, fairly or not, embodied the cultural meaning of Britain in the 1960s, both for Americans and for the British themselves. “London is switched on,” journalist Piri Halasz enthused. “Ancient elegance and new opulence are all tangled up in a dazzling blur of op and pop. The city is alive with birds (girls) and beatles, buzzing with minicars and telly stars, pulsing with half a dozen separate veins of excitement” (Halasz 1966). London was all color and style and living in the moment; the stuffiness of tradition was a thing of the past, and even Prince Charles had long hair. Decolonization was certainly taking place all throughout the former empire; Britain may have been suffering from declining productivity and a consistent trade imbalance, but the one British export that was reliably in demand was cultural production, from the fashion designers of Carnaby Street to the musicians of the first wave of the “British invasion” (as the cultural influence of British music on the US was termed).

But while many of the products and practices of Swinging London were popular, especially with young people, they were controversial among those who saw in loud music, long hair, and micro-miniskirts the potential for moral decay. Nor was the conflict between permissiveness and tradition the only cultural struggle: whether art should be supported by the state or subject to the forces of commercialization was another. Should the BBC and the Arts Council, funded by taxpayers, have the opportunity to shape tastes and promote “uplifting” programming? Or was it better to trust decisions about art and music to consumers? Although historians have often identified the 1980s as the decade in which the decision in favor of commercial forces was finally made, it is clear that the 1960s and 1970s laid much of the groundwork for that change.

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