Over Fifty years ago on the Whitsun weekend of the 16-18 May 1964, the youth of Britain went mad. If you believed the newspapers, that is, who went with screaming headlines like ‘Battle of Brighton’, and ‘Wild Ones ‘Beat Up’ Margate’ . Editorials fulminated with predictions of national collapse, referring to the youths as ‘those vermin’ and ‘mutated locusts wreaking untold havoc on the land’.
Whitsun 1964 has become famous as the peak of the Mods and Rockers riots, as large groups of teenagers committed mayhem on the rain-swept streets of southern resorts like Margate, Brighton, Clacton and Bournemouth. Extensively photographed and publicised at the time, these disturbances have entered pop folklore: proudly emblazoned on sites about Mod culture and expensively recreated in the 1979 film Quadrophenia.
Yet, as ever when you’re dealing with tabloid newspapers, things are not quite what they seemed. What was trumpeted as a vicious exercise in national degeneration was to some extent, pre-hyped by the press. It was also not as all-encompassing as the headlines suggested: although an estimated 1,000 youths were involved in the Brighton disturbances, there were only 76 arrests. In Margate, there were an estimated 400 youths involved, with 64 arrests. While unpleasant and oppressive, this was hardly a teen take-over.
The cycle had begun six weeks or so earlier, during a dull and unseasonably cold Easter weekend. Up to 1,000 or so young Londoners had descended on Clacton, a smallish resort on England’s eastern coast. Bored with the bad weather and limited facilities, groups had separated according to their tribe: there were scuffles and stone-throwing, and the generally threatening appearance of teenagers en masse, barely restrained by an underwhelming police presence.
On Easter Monday, the press went big with the story: ‘Day of Terror by Scooter Groups’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘Youngsters Beat Up Town – 97 Leather Jacket Arrests’ (Daily Express), and ‘Wild Ones Invade Seaside – 97 Arrests’ (Daily Mirror). Citing “fighting, drinking, roaring, rampaging teenagers on scooters and motorcycles”, the Mirror referenced the notorious 1953 Marlon Brando film, The Wild One, which in mid-sixties Britain was still banned by the British Board of Film Censors, as likely to incite juvenile delinquency.
After that sensational write-up, the pattern was prepared for the next public holiday, andsouthern seaside resorts became the theatre. Contrasted with the anomie of Clacton, it became split along stylistic and tribal lines: between smart, scooter-riding, of-the-minute Mods, and leather-jacketed, scruffy Rockers − the younger siblings of the early 60s Ton Up Boys. ‘Grease’ they were called, and, although they had long hair − longer than many Mods − they were seen as throwbacks to Marlon Brando and 1950s Teddy Boys.
The relationship between the rioters and the press was examined in Generation X, an influential piece of youth sociology by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson − published in 1964 to capitalise on the apparent turmoil of contemporary youth. The cover simulated a variety of lurid headlines or phrases ̶ “RIGHT OLD MESS’, ‘PUNCH UP’, ‘QUEER ̶ but the book gave room to the voices of real teens, allowing them to speak freely. It remains a valuable document.
It began with a quote from “John Braden, 18, a London mechanic”: “yes, I am a Mod and I was at Margate. I’m not ashamed of it − I wasn’t the only one. I joined in a few of the fights. It was a laugh, I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for a long time. It was great − the beach was like a battlefield. It was like we were taking over the country. You want to hit back at all the old geezers who try to tell us what to do. We just want to show them we’re not going to take it.”
The Whitsun 1964 disturbances announced the fact that a new generation was claiming its space and its time. As evidenced by the interviews in Generation X, the early baby-boomers were more confident, better educated, and even more restless than their 1950s counterparts: the Edwardians, later Teddy Boys, who had become notorious for their combination of strange, exaggerated clothes and tendency towards extreme violence.
Generation X captured, for the first time from within, a separate youth world that took its cues from music and fashion. As one interviewee observed: “a lot of today’s teenagers have ambitions to be the top dresser in his district. Another ambition is to play in a beat group that’s going to have some sort of fame”. Films were still important as fantasy vehicles but the public life of 1960s teenagers was acted out in terms of Mod clothes, Bluebeat music and Soho clubs.
The Mod/Rocker disturbances soon faded as other styles came into youth culture prominence, but they set a pattern of tribal violence that would continue on and off throughout the rest of the 1960s (Skinheads v Hippies), the 1970s (Punks v Teds), and the 1980s − when the front cover of Time’s European edition for 24 October 1983 showed a scary-looking Mohawk punk with the cover strap The Tribes of Britain. Inside, the lurid copy presented a country riven by inter-youth culture battles.
The events of 1964 were also a textbook example of what the sociologist Jock Young termed “a moral panic”. This idea was explored by Stanley Cohen in his ground-breaking study of the Mod/Rocker riots, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media”. Moral barricades are manned, solutions are devised by ‘experts’, and the episode fades or is successfully ‘dealt with’.
Cohen observed how “one of the most recurrent types of moral panic in Britain since the war has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture”’. What to the young seemed quite natural − the announcement of their generation’s arrival, a claiming of public space within a country that catered little for their needs − to adults seemed threatening and a symptom of national decay. There was violence, to be sure, but some of this was simply adult projection: a dark vision of a nightmare future symbolised by alien youth.
Folk Devils and Moral Panics was published in 1973, and coincided with the pioneering work undertaken at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies: during the next few years, books like Resistance Through Rituals by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, and Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style developed subcultural theory − in short, the mapping of youth tribes as both a commercial creation and a way of resistance − as a method of analysing mass youth culture.
It also fed back into popular culture. The early to mid 1970s saw all manner of nostalgic elements enter the pop mainstream, as the modernism of the ’60s was replaced with an awareness of the past: the early 1960s retro of the vastly influential George Lucas film, American Graffiti, the Pop Art references in Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain, the Mod pop retro of David Bowie’s 1973 covers album, Pin Ups, the harking back to the 1964 heyday of the Mods and Rockers in the Who’s 1973 album, Quadrophenia.
At the same time, the various incarnations of the shop run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood at 430 Kings Road passed through historical subcultures: in Let It Rock (1972-3), the Edwardian clothes of the Teddy Boys, in Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die (1974) ‘40s zoot suits and ‘50s rocker leathers. In Sex (1974-6) they sourced fetish clothing along with their own original designs, usually festooned in slogans and extreme imagery.
In May 1976, McLaren told the magazine Street Life, “I think now kids have a hankering to be part of a movement… They want to associate with a movement that’s hard and tough and in the open like the clothes we’re selling here.” Early punk audiences mixed handmade designs with clothes sourced from the 1940s and 1950s − in a dizzying, living collage.
Punk in turn kick-started an explosion of subcultural research, as all the strands that had been packed into the original movement unravelled into individual styles. The punks v Teds battles of 1977 − a self-conscious reprise of the Mods v Rockers disturbances − were followed by the reappearance of Skinheads, the Mod Revival of 1979, the Ska revival, and the onset of the New Romantics, who freely and gleefully plundered styles going right back to the 19th Century. Clothes became more than individual adornment: a matter of deep, tribal identification.
In the early ‘90s, just as Britain’s style wars were abating − thanks to rave culture and the onset of sportswear as a youth cult staple − the phrase Generation X was given a new lease of life. Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture examined the early adulthood of another generation: coinciding with the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the consequent obsession with Grunge, it caught the emergence of the cohort born in the mid to late 1960s, just after the baby boomer bulge.
Since then, the phrase has been adapted for successive waves of young adults: Generation Y, Generation Z, Generation Rent etc − so much so that it has become almost meaningless. Most of the stories using these generational tropes follow the time-honoured media template: either positive − celebrating the young in consumerist terms as early adopters and trend-spotters − or condemnatory, usually in terms of violence orapathy.
Whether it be Generation X, Y or Z, adults continue to project their hopes and fears onto adolescents. Talking about a generation marks the arrival of a fresh cohort who will respond to the world in their own way. Whether adults like it or not, teenagers embody the future, and many of them will respond to the challenges they face in constructive and creative ways.