More than one newspaper, advertising the Icons exhibition which opened at the Proud Gallery in west London on Thursday, made what the more austere kind of social historian would regard as an elementary category mistake. This was to refer to its collection of portraits of such seminal figures as Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Beatles and Twiggy – the model languidly portrayed by Gered Mankowitz – as constituting a history of "popular culture". For "popular culture", according to its original definition of "created and developed by the people under their own impetus", no longer exists. What has taken its place is a mass culture devised by forces extraneous to them and imposed, or insinuated, from above.
One can appreciate the difference between these two types of arrangements – the one organic and communal, the other artificial and hieratic – by looking at the history of what gets marked down as "popular entertainment". A hundred and fifty years ago, the average working-class city dweller who wanted a night's amusement would take him- or herself off to a "penny gaff" – an early type of variety hall – where, in conditions of maximum informality, other working people performed songs and sketches they had written themselves, which by and large reflected the concerns and the moral standards of the communities that they inhabited.
A century and a half later, the leisure-bound citizen repairs to a cinema and inspects the altogether bizarre anthropological spectacle that is a Hollywood movie.
Naturally, the transformation is not quite so clear cut or reductive as this. Every so often in modern cultural history something which is apparently self-created surges up from the boondocks with the aim of threatening the mass-cultural status quo – Sixties psychedelia, say, or Seventies punk rock – only for the biz, if not to swallow it whole, then codify it, commodify it and start making money out of it.
A friend of mine who played in one of the original punk bands back in 1976 once wistfully declared that by the time the press discovered safety-pins, bondage trousers and jumping up and down at concerts, the thing was already dead. All that remained was, to borrow Thom Gunn's famous phrase (minted, significantly enough, in a poem about Elvis) "the revolt into style".
When did this anaesthetising process first kick in? In his compendious survey of the literary history of the period 1870-1918, Writers, Readers and Reputations, Oxford academic P J Waller maintains that for a brief period at the start of the 20th century, thanks to Victorian educational reforms and the drive to mass literacy, literature was the dominant force in British culture.
Then came radio, film and television, which began to configure the patterns which, a century later, continue – depending on your point of view – to edify or constrain us. My father (born 1921) was a pattern example of this tendency: living on a Norwich council estate, but getting his entertainment and a certain amount of his worldview courtesy of the scriptwriters at Burbank.
If anything remains of a genuinely popular native culture it can be found down on the unreported margins of ordinary life – the car-boot-sale/pub singalong end – and, of course, the part of it least susceptible to mass-cultural interference: language. The person – almost certainly a man – who first decided to call a child-festooned teenage mother "pramface" might not win any awards for human decency, but at least he was performing an authentic cultural act. However arresting the pictures, there will be precious few of these on display at Proud Chelsea.
Neatly enough, previews of the Icons show began to appear on the same day that news came of the death, aged 70, of Mick Farren, a figure of well-nigh Olympian significance in the counter-cultural history of post-war Britain. Those among us who pored over the New Musical Express in their sixth-form common rooms, back in the magazine's late Seventies heyday, will remember him as an exceptionally brilliant music journalist. Yet there were other incarnations, including frontman with that legendary Sixties combo the Social Deviants, one of whose B-sides was called "Let's Loot the Supermarket", author of the rock'n'roll novel to end all rock' n'roll novels (The Tale of Willy's Rats) and creator of a beguiling piece of pop sci-fi (The Texts of the Festival) in which, hunkered down in some parched, post-apocalyptic futurescape, the hippie hordes console themselves by reciting not scripture by the lyrics of songs by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
A fixture of the late-1960s Ladbroke Grove squats, where he collaborated with its resident musical collective Hawkwind, Farren was a kind of symbol of Sixties anarcho-radicalism, a long-term purveyor of the notion – never popular with the authorities from one era to the next – that the human being is a free spirit, unnecessarily trammelled by convention, rules, bourgeois neuroses and a great deal else. And what happened to Sixties anarcho-radicalism? Quite a lot of it went mainstream, in the manner pastiched by drug-dealing Danny in the closing scenes of Withnail and I ("They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man"). And yet, stealthily and surreptitiously, a fair amount survived to illuminate the fringes of the late Seventies independent music scene. Even now its animating spirit is not quite dead, and I never open a parcel containing one of Michael Horovitz's poetry anthologies, or hear of an attempt to re-stage the Royal Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation of 1965, when Ginsburg and the surviving Beat Poets turned up to harangue the crowd, without thinking that, however precariously, a small part of the 1960s underground survives.
Fittingly, Mick Farren died on stage during a Deviants reunion concert, having declined his doctor's advice not to perform. To wonder whether a society run on Farrenite lines might not be uninhabitable after about 10 minutes is, of course, entirely beside the point.
Icons can be seen at Proud Chelsea, 161 King's Road, London SW3 5XP (proudonline.co.uk) until 21 Sept. Admission is free
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