So You Say You Want a Revolution?
It’s easy to be comically outraged by the abusive, and at times menacing, attitude of the Soviet Authorities toward the young Russian hipsters known as Stilyagi who aped American fashions. They were really just fun-seeking kids, not dissidents, but they were regularly pilloried in the press, as was the Western Jazz and Rock and Roll they loved to listen to on x-ray records. But it’s worth remembering that in the West too there were similar disapproving attitudes towards teenagers, ‘hooligans’, ‘delinquents’, young ‘punks’ etc.. Rock ‘n’ Roll was described as ‘the devil’s music” using much the same pseudo- moral reasons given in the atheist Soviet Union: that it had ‘sexual rhythms" and "suggestive lyrics", that it would tempt the young and innocent off the path of virtue and into acts of depravity or social disobedience. Elvis Presley, whose music drew a huge amount of ire from conservative quarters, and who was subject to various prohibitions at times, is STILL being censored in the US it seems.
This moral disapprobation of young, cool music collided with the rampant anti-communist rhetoric of the American fundamentalist right with almost comical effect from the 1950s to 1970s. Firebrand Christian writer David Noebel* (who is still active) published various books and leaflets warning against the infiltration of the Reds into the US. He claimed the Communists were using pop music to brainwash young people. Obvious left-wing folkies such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger first attracted his righteous indignation but he was convinced that Bob Dylan, The Beatles and particularly John Lennon, were also intent on corrupting American youth - and were being used deliberately by the Soviets to do so.
He may perhaps have assumed that the fact the Soviet authorities prohibited these and similar artists (such as the Russian ‘bard’ singers), was not evidence that their music was actually anti-totalitarian, but proof of its fundamental moral degeneracy - and therefore of its efficacy in attacking the West. What he felt about the fact that the US and the British, were actively broadcasting such corrupting music into the Soviet Union, and aiming it specifically at young people, is difficult to know.
What would he have made of our recently deceased friend Kolya Vasin, the Russian ‘Beatles Guy’? As a youth, Kolya had all the outward signs of a 1960s rebellious teenager: the long hair, the hippy clothes, the acoustic guitar and the afternoons spent drinking wine in the park. He suffered as a result - he was ridiculed and even assaulted by members of the Komsomol youth police at various times.
Early in the 1960s he had bought an x-ray record which had turned out to contain a Beatles song. It changed his life profoundly, in fact it made him pro - US and anti-communist. When I asked him what The Beatles music meant to him, he simply said one word: ‘Freedom’.
It seems fundamentalist thinking, whether it be on the left or the right, always seems to feel threatened by youth and pop culture, in fact by …freedom.
*Some of David’s books (and a vinyl LP) are above and below.
The anti rock ‘ n’ roll propaganda could get quite nasty. As in the Soviet Union, it was sometimes underpinned with a vicious racist narrative - with black culture in the US seen as responsible, gypsy and jewish influences blamed in the USSR.
Watch this selection for more.