For the past four weeks I’ve been watching Dominic Sandbrook’s history of culture in post-war Britain, Let Us Entertain You. It’s been a funny old series, darting from Rolling Stone drug raids to Tom Brown’s School Days and then to the magical components of Game of Thrones in a heartbeat. But it’s also been entertaining and informative.
In the final episode of the series, “Me, Myself and I”, the emphasis was very much on the rise of the individual. Sandbrook, who, when he’s not writing books the size of breeze blocks, is a columnist for (can I dare bring myself to say it?) The Daily Mail, has often been criticised as a Thatcherite apologist: a revisionist historian who, simultaneously, has a Whigish view that the events of British history from Queen Victoria onwards were all part of the inevitable journey towards the glorious rise to power of the Iron Lady.
And, with an episode seemingly devoted to the me-me-me phenomenon (Thatcher famously explained her view that “There is no such thing as society”, after all), it’s easy to see the detractors’ point of view – especially when the episode devoted so much time and praise to the worst piece of patronising tosh ever committed to celluloid: Billy Elliot, a film in which completely leaving behind anything resembling your working class roots and community in favour of something far more acceptable to middle-class pallettes is considered a major triumph. Hmph!
Anyway, I digress. At the starting point of the final episode – give or take a reference or seventeen to a Victorian chap by the name of Samuel Smiles (how Sandbrook loves Smiles!) – Sandbrook took a look at the life of John Lennon.
In particular, the focus was on John Lennon as an art college student. The art college, said Sandbrook, was one of the greatest educational achievements of post-war Britain, giving, as it did, the opportunity for students to make something of themselves – to rise above their station in life and use nothing more than their talent and imagination to do something different. And for all the quibbling over Sandbrook’s politics, he may well have a point here.
John Lennon is, perhaps, the most famous example of an art college student who made something of themselves and did something different. But he is by no means the only one. Cut to images of various different artists and musicians with a shared educational history: Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ray Davies, Pete Townsend.
Sandbrook’s argument runs that young, working class men, unwilling to follow their fathers’ footsteps down mines or towards the docks, sought a means to better themselves by going to art college and developing and then making the most of their individual talents – rather than blindly doing what the rest of the crowd was doing.
This was in the 50s and 60s: the age of the angry young man. Osborne. Braine. Amis. It was an era of full employment – or as close to full employment as it’s possible to be. With the knowledge that anyone could have a job, some were now less keen to take any old job. Maybe now there was an opportunity to do something better than Dad and Grandad had done.
In the view of George Melly, art colleges were ‘the refuge of the bright but unacademic, the talented, the non-conformist, the lazy, the inventive and the indecisive.’
Having read three of Sandbrook’s books, Never Had it So Good (covering 1956-1963), White Heat (1963-1970) and State of Emergency (1970-1974), I’ve been struck by the parallels between Britain as a whole in the 50s and 60s and Medway in the 70s and 80s. I was reading the first two of his books off and on while writing my own book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway.
Just as the likes of John Lennon and Keith Richards went to art school as a means of escape from the life that might have been expected of them in the middle of the 20th century, so the likes of Billy Childish used art school as a means of escape in the last quarter of the century.
This escape wasn’t exclusive to the working classes though. Far from it. Sandbrook might be being a little narrow in his reading of art college history in that regard.
John Lennon may have later sung about Working Class Heroes but he famously grew up in leafy suburbia with Aunt Mimi. Similarly, Steven Hamper’s background in relatively prosperous Walderslade is somewhat at odds with his alter ego, Billy Childish, whose entire existence seems to be defined by working class Chatham: the Dockyard where he worked (ever so briefly) as an apprentice, the songs he has recorded (‘Chatham Train’, ‘Headcoat and the Mortar-Board’ and ‘Back Among the Medway Losers’) and the bands he has created, most obviously CTMF – or Chatham Forts – and The Chatham Singers.
Lennon and Childish are hardly alone in this tendency to downplay their past. Cultural history is strewn with examples of artists playing down suburban and/or affluent roots in favour of a more edgy, affected past.
Precisely how much of a non-working class thing Medway College of Design was can be summed up by Chris Broderick of the Singing Loins:
‘Billy was art school. Billy is middle class art school. I didn’t know anyone like that. It was the art school element that was doing it all, but I couldn’t get into that. Art school’s not something you could do after going to Temple Secondary Modern. You don’t go on the art school from there. You go into the factory or the army.’
Nevertheless, the escape art colleges provided was away from normality (whichever class that normality could be found in) – an opportunity to follow dreams and break away from the crowd. It happened with Lennon, Richards and Townsend in the 50s and 60s. And it happened with the members of Medway’s The Pop Rivets in the 70s.
Intriguingly, what happened with Childish’s first band mirrored much of what had happened in previous decades at other art schools. In Never Had It So Good, Sandbrook explains how:
‘It was in the art schools that relatively uncommercial kinds of music, like modernist jazz or, initially, Rhythm and Blues, first took hold, and the general ease of art-school life meant that there was plenty of time for aspiring musicians to form and rehearse bands of their own.’
But for the reference to modernist jazz, Sandbrook could have, so easily, been describing the situation Billy Childish, Bruce Brand, Russ Wilkins and Russ Lax found themselves in as they assembled themselves as The Pop Rivets. Much of what followed in the careers of the individual Pop Rivets and their friends (The Daggermen and The Prisoners, for example) relates, in some way, to the old art college staple of Rhythm and Blues.
The creativity, energy and enthusiasm present within a place like Medway College of Design meant it was much easier to have a “why not?” attitude than you might have found in many other places in Medway in the mid- to late-70s.
Why not form a band?
Why not recruit a drummer at dead of night on Jackson’s Field in Rochester? Why not use a friend’s social security money to fund the recording of an album – the first properly independent record? Why not use the college’s supplies to create the artwork for the album?
And, as was the case with The Milkshakes, who succeeded The Pop Rivets (and shared a similar personnel), why not drive motorbikes into the college canteen at the beginning of your gig, billowing exhaust fumes everywhere till it was impossible to see where the stage was?
Why not indeed.
If it hadn’t been for the art school in the 50s and 60s, we wouldn’t have had a great deal of the popular culture from which this country – and the world has benefitted. And without The Pop Rivets finding their origins in an art college in Medway, to a lesser extend, I admit, popular culture would look – and sound – very different too.
Find out more about Billy Childish, The Pop Rivets and many other Medway bands and artists in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway (Cultured Llama, 2015).