Juke Box Britain

Andrew Blake discovers that the UK had its own distinctive youth culture before rock'n'roll arrived

August 13, 2009

The BBC's World Service is running an interesting campaign right now. "Save Our Sounds" attempts to preserve some of the many soundscapes threatened by the uniform roar of globalisation. Listeners are invited to send in recordings of their favourite sounds, such as railway station announcements combined with human bustle and birdsong from places threatened by development. Thanks to this initiative, we will always be able to hear our vanishing world.

Adrian Horn's examination of the jukebox phenomenon is a mute, but eloquent, tribute to the sonic world we have lost. Colour plates show some of the machines in all their Art Deco glory, while the text describes their arrival in the UK and the slow growth of an indigenous industry in the protectionist conditions of postwar industrial recovery. He charts the rise of the American jukebox in the late 1950s (despite opposition from Nimbys and cultural conservatives) as part of an increasingly youth-oriented entertainment and leisure industry. Horn deals efficiently with the changing economic, political and legal context that allowed the jukebox to become commonplace in the physical and acoustic environment in Britain.

There's more here, however, than the description of an important aspect of public culture. Horn situates his account of the jukebox within a set of arguments that attempt to counter accepted stories of the emergence of the British teenager in the 1950s, and the historical shaping of Americanisation within UK culture. Drawing on the work of Bill Osgerby, David Fowler and others, alongside his own textual research and interview data, Horn claims that there were distinctive teenage cultures before the arrival of rock'n'roll. They were massively differentiated regionally, and in many cases they were cultures of poverty rather than that described so presciently in Mark Abrams' influential 1959 report, The Teenage Consumer.

Of course, Abrams was right: there was an emergent teenage consumer culture, and within a decade of his report the leisure industry, jukeboxes included, had largely been re-engineered in its favour. But Horn's qualifications are also right. For much of the 1950s, British teenagers were not affluent; many of those girls who left school at 14 or 15 gave most or all of their wages to their parents, while the boys spent their latter teenage years on National Service. In a telling part of his argument, Horn reminds us that teenage girls often made their own dresses, while accompanying photographs (monochrome this time, but reproduced well) show Teddy boys and girls whose cheapskate finery stands in stark contrast to backdrops of austere streets, run-down terraces and bomb sites.

Horn argues that the Americanisation of British culture was a far more conditional, hesitant and nuanced process than the smooth story of cultural imperialism articulated - and either celebrated or excoriated - by contemporaries such as Colin McInnes and Richard Hoggart. In the dress codes adopted by young people in Lancashire towns, the corner-shop cafes and milk bars in which they gathered, or the chunky and less flamboyant designs of the British jukeboxes that provided the music in those milk bars, the British expressed themselves in ways that were local and regional as much as American. Indeed, UK culture had been open to US influences for at least a century at this point, but the differences remain - whether expressed through the music of folk rock and prog rock, the dress of skinheads and punks, or more recently the lyrical wit of UK grime. Meanwhile, however, that glamorous musical beast that was the jukebox has departed, its soundscape lost to the anodyne respectfulness of nostalgia. The causes of its departure await their historian.

Juke Box Britain: Americanisation and Youth Culture, 1945-60

By Adrian Horn

Manchester University Press 240pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780719079078

Published 17 April 2009

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