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Rock ‘n’ Roll: It’s Better Than Beating Up Old Ladies with Bicycle Chains

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The Merseyside gangs were the toughest in Liverpool—and in Liverpool in those days, all the gangs were tough. The chaps would hang around street corners showing off their haircuts, and whenever outsiders invaded their turf, they would step right out and start a rumble. Today most of the old belligerence is gone. The gangs have spawned rock ‘n’ roll quartets like amoebae, and the boys have swapped their bicycle chains for guitars.

The musical metamorphosis of Merseyside is only one of the wonders rock ‘n’ roll has worked in England. As all Christendom has learned, rock also begat what Englishmen call “the beat,” and the beat begat the Beatles. The Beatles are all old Merseyside types, and only a few million dollars ago they were trooping around the rock clubs there, playing for carfare like everyone else. Now they have become such a crucial factor in English life that conservative candidates have been officially cautioned not to omit some friendly word for them from their speeches, and the Queen has expressed her concern over the length of Ringo’s hair.

The Chippy on the Turf. Mersey-side’s cultural crisis began in 1955, when the American movie Rock Around the Clock came to town. All the kids went to see it and, of course, they tore up the theater in their enthusiasm. But according to an article in the British sociology journal New Society, things were never the same again. Says 19-year-old Colin Fletcher, who was a member of two Merseyside gangs before he entered Liverpool University: “It was the first time the gangs had been exposed to an animal rhythm that matched their own behavior. The beat spread like a rumour.”

The changes, at first, were subtle.

The gangs still fought, but their hearts weren’t in it. Their small crimes continued—”scrumping in orchards and gardens, letting ourselves in and out of the park keeper’s shed to make a cup of tea”—but “criminal boys” lost their prestige to “romantic boys,” and the romantics all formed rock groups. The local fish and chips joint, “the chippy on the turf,” lost its glamour—everybody wanted to go home to listen to Elvis records. Meetings and war councils were delayed so the fellows could catch the rock show on the telly.

Real Gone. Soon it was clear that the gangs were dying. Friday night rumbles were no longer a test of status; what counted was how well each gang’s rock group performed on Saturday night. A gang’s rock group became its totem, and all the members began dressing in the costume of their quartet. “The music,” writes Fletcher, “was gradually becoming ‘us,'” and it did not go unnoticed that the girls “seemed to be real gone—over not only the sound but also those who made it.”

Life in Liverpool still requires a sense of humor, but instead of the old, leather-jacketed menace of the gangs, there are now 350 “beat groups.” The beat throbs loudly, anonymously, cheerfully, from 25 beat clubs and at least 75 other “venues.” The groups sport such virile names as “The Profiles” and “The Cruisers,” and the music has lost its early and highly anomalous English sound; the Liverpudlian accent lends itself nicely to lyrics of the “You got everthing’ bay-bee” school, and Merseyside rock groups such as Ian and the Zodiacs sound just like they come from

Bob City, Georgia. Former boppers have even taken up beat poetry. The revolution is complete.

Empty Face. Fletcher’s article and the whole beat phenomenon have kindled one of the liveliest debates England has enjoyed in recent years. The Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prince Philip and Poet Stephen Spender-are all on the side of the beats, though others have gasped at the chasm of vacuity they see revealed in Ringo’s face.

No one argues that beat therapy has not been good for the kids; juvenile crime in Liverpool has dropped below the national average. At the very least, as one beat club employee says, making such music is better than beating up old ladies with bicycle chains. And a London reporter, feeling the beat, said the best of it: “It’s a reminder to jumped-up man, grown snobbish, that the part of him which belongs forever to his old sweet home—the jungle—is good and valuable.”

* Spender considers the Beatles’ haircuts antidotes to violence and adolescent sexuality because they are “compromise haircuts”—as sexually indefinite as Prince Valiant’s.

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