Bringing Subcultures Back

Speakers: Lucy Robinson, Keith Gildart, Matthew Worley, Chris Warne

Chair: Ben Jones

This panel explores the implications of bringing together the legacies of the subcultural work made famous by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies with the current work growing out the Birmingham Centre for Modern British Studies as outlined in its manifesto. We seek to re-evaluate the possibilities of subcultural practice in order to illuminate the wider cultures of democracy.  To that end we have brought together case studies which look at subcultural identities as both a reaction against and an interaction with formal social, political and economic institutions.  In this context, we suggest that rather than being viewed through simplistic ideas of deviance or rebellion, subcultural identities should be seen in their own right as distinctive and influential ways of imagining and re-imagining Britain’s global position.

Paper 1 Abstract: Coal, Cotton and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Cultural Politics of Space, Place, and Class in North West England, 1955-65

Keith Gildart (University of Wolverhampton)

This paper is an exploration of the relationship between English working-class youths and American popular music between the years 1955-65. First, through a biographical focus on a selection of performers and consumers the paper examines the ways in which rhythm and blues music engaged with social change through personal, musical, geographical and intellectual journeys. Second, it explores how popular music had a specific impact on English working-class youth through the reinforcement and transformation of particular social identities linked to locality, race, gender, sexuality and nation. Third, it examines how popular music was crucial in transforming public spaces in particular localities and building new ones through the creation of musical genres, youth subcultures and social scenes. Fourth, the paper highlights the experiences of working-class youths in their consumption of popular music through performance, concert attendance and identity construction. The argument presented here is that rhythm and blues music made a significant contribution to the ‘everyday life’ of English working-class youth and represents an underexplored facet of the resilience of social class in the post-war period.

Paper 2 Abstract: ‘While the world was dying, did you wonder why?’: Punk, Politics and British (fan)zines, 1976–84

Matthew Worley (University of Reading)

This paper recovers and contextualizes the politics of British punk fanzines produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It argues that fanzines – and youth cultures more generally – serve to provide a contested cultural space for young people to express their ideas, opinions and anxieties. Simultaneously, it maintains that punk fanzines offer the historian a portal into a period of significant socio-economic, political and cultural change. As well as presenting alternative cultural narratives to the formulaic accounts of punk and popular music now common in the mainstream media, fanzines allow us a glimpse of the often radical ideas held by a youthful milieu rarely given expression in the political arena.

Paper 3 Abstract: “Embracing the divine chaos”: the 1990s British rave church movement caught between the local and the global

Lucy Robinson and Chris Warne (University of Sussex)

From 1985-1995 the Sheffield-based Nine O’Clock Service (NOS) attracted young people in their hundreds, blending rave culture with a vision of Christian spiritual renewal, typified by its use of electronic music and multi-media visuals in the Planetary Mass, all within an officially sanctioned Church of England framework. In many ways, it can be seen as the most visible expression of a broader contemporary movement within British Christianity to explore new cultural expressions and forms of belonging.
However, the potential paradoxes of this movement appeared to come to a spectacular head in 1995 when the Church of England removed Chris Brain, NOS’s acknowledged leader and figurehead following accusations of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. Pilloried in the popular media as a rave cult within the Church of England, NOS seemed to handily combine moral panics about rave culture on the one hand, and about religious cults run by ‘Sexy Vicars’ and charismatic evangelicals on the other.

In this two handed paper we seek to interrogate two interwoven threads of the local and global that ran through the Sheffield Church, and the responses to its dismantling. In particular, we will explore
the value of subcultural theory as a means of illuminating the importance of both the local and the global within the NOS phenomenon. Firstly, we will read 1980s British evangelicalism as a series of interconnected subcultures, seeing NOS as the most visible expression of its complex of local activism, global networks and transnational exchanges. Secondly we will situate NOS within the global networks of rave culture, emphasising the importance of the specific context, Sheffield, and of its localisation of rave as a global party tribe.

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