How the Beatles changed Britain

Once, culture came with leather patches on its elbows and spoke in a BBC accent. But the Beatles changed all that. In doing so, writes Hanif Kureishi, they inspired an entire class.

One day at school – an all-boys comprehensive on the border between London and Kent – our music teacher told us that John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn't actually write those famous Beatles songs we loved so much.

It was 1968 and I was 13. For the first time in music appreciation classes we were to listen to the Beatles' ‘She's Leaving Home’, with the bass turned off. The previous week, after some Brahms, we'd been allowed to hear an Elton John record, again bassless. For Mr Hogg, our music and religious instruction teacher, the bass guitar ‘obscured’ the music. But hearing anything by the Beatles at school was uplifting, an act so unusually liberal it was confusing.

Mr Hogg prised open the lid of the school ‘stereophonic equipment’, which was kept in a big, dark wooden box and wheeled around the premises by the much-abused war-wounded caretaker. Hogg put on ‘She's Leaving Home’ without introduction, but as soon as it began he started his Beatles analysis. What he said was devastating, though it was put simply, as if he were stating the obvious. These were the facts: Lennon and McCartney could not possibly have written the songs ascribed to them; it was a con – we should not be taken in by the Beatles, they were only front-men. Those of us who weren't irritated by his prattling through the tune were giggling. Certainly, for a change, most of us were listening to teacher. I was perplexed. Why would anyone want to think anything so ludicrous? What was really behind this idea? ‘Who did write the Beatles' songs, then, sir?’ someone asked bravely. And Paul McCartney sang:

We struggled hard all our lives to get by,
She's leaving home after living alone,
For so many years.

Mr Hogg told us that Brian Epstein and George Martin wrote the Lennon/ McCartney songs. ‘Real musicians were playing on those records’, he said. Then he put the record back in its famous sleeve and changed the subject.

But I worried about Hogg's theory for days; on several occasions I was tempted to buttonhole him in the corridor and discuss it further. The more I dwelt on it alone, the more it revealed. The Mopheads couldn’t even read music – how could they be geniuses? It was unbearable to Mr Hogg that four young men without significant education could be the bearers of such talent and critical acclaim. But then Hogg had a somewhat holy attitude to culture. ‘He’s cultured’, he'd say of someone, the antonym of ‘He’s common’.

Culture, even popular culture – folk-singing, for instance – was something you put on a special face for, after years of wearisome study. Culture involved a particular twitching of the nose, a faraway look (into the sublime), and a fruity pursing of the lips. Hogg knew. There was, too, a sartorial vocabulary of knowingness, with leather patches sewn on to the elbows of rancid jackets. Obviously this was not something the Beatles had been born into. Nor had they acquired it in any recognised academy or university. No, in their early 20s, the Fabs made culture again and again, even as they mugged and winked at the cameras like schoolboys.

‘Eight Arms To Hold You' by Hanif Kureishi

Newspaper cutting of an article titled 'Boys like us' by Hanif Kureishi with a photograph of The Beatles

‘Boys like us’: a cutting of ‘How the Beatles changed Britain’ (later titled ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’), as originally published in the Guardian Weekend supplement, 2–3 November 1991.

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Usage terms Martin Sharp (cover artwork): © The Estate of Martin Sharp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Bob Whitaker (photographs): © Robert Whitaker. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Hanif Kureishi (article text): © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Sitting in my bedroom listening to the Beatles on a Grundig reel-to-reel tape-recorder, I began to see that to admit to the Beatles' genius would devastate Hogg. It would take too much else away with it. The songs that were so perfect and about recognisable common feelings – ‘She Loves You’, ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ – were all written by Brian Epstein and George Martin because the Beatles were only boys like us: ignorant, bad-mannered and rude; boys who’d never, in a just world, do anything interesting with their lives. This implicit belief, or form of contempt, was not abstract. We felt and sometimes recognised – and Hogg's attitude towards the Beatles exemplified this – that our teachers had no respect for us as people capable of learning, of finding the world compelling and wanting to know it.

The Beatles would also be difficult for Hogg to swallow because for him there was a hierarchy among the arts. At the top were stationed classical music and poetry, beside the literary novel and great painting. In the middle would be not-so-good examples of these forms. At the bottom of the list, and scarcely considered art forms at all, were films (‘the pictures’), television and, finally, the most derided – pop music. But in that post-modern dawn – the mid-60s I like to think that Hogg was starting to experience cultural vertigo. He thought he knew what culture was, what counted in history, what had weight, and what you needed to know to be educated. These things were not relative, not a question of taste or decision.

Notions of objectivity did exist; there were criteria and Hogg knew what the criteria were. Or at least he thought he did. But that particular form of certainty, of intellectual authority, along with many other forms of authority, was shifting. People didn’t know where they were any more. Not that you could ignore the Beatles even if you wanted to. Those rockers in suits were unique in English popular music, bigger than anyone had been before. What a pleasure it was to swing past Buckingham Palace in the bus knowing the Queen was indoors, in her slippers, watching her favourite film, Yellow Submarine, and humming along to ‘Eleanor Rigby’. (‘All the lonely people...’)

The Beatles couldn’t be as easily dismissed as the Rolling Stones, who often seemed like an ersatz American group, especially when Mick Jagger started to sing with an American accent. But the Beatles' music was supernaturally beautiful and it was English music. In it you could hear cheeky music hall songs and send-ups, pub ballads and, more importantly, hymns. The Fabs had the voices and looks of choirboys, and their talent was so broad they could do anything – love songs, comic songs, kids' songs and singalongs for football crowds (at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hot spur's ground, we sang: ‘Here, there and every-f**king-where, Jimmy Greaves, Jimmy Greaves’). They could do rock 'n' roll too, though they tended to parody it, having mastered it early on.

One lunchtime in the school library, not long after the incident with Hogg, I came across a copy of Life Magazine which included hefty extracts from Hunter Davies's biography of the Beatles, the first major book about them and their childhood. It was soon stolen from the library and passed around the school, a contemporary Lives of the Saints. (On the curriculum we were required to read Gerald Durrell and C S Forester, but we had our own books, which we discussed, just as we exchanged and discussed records. We liked Candy, Lord of the Flies, James Bond, Mervyn Peake, Sex Manners for Men, among others.)

Finally my parents bought the biography for my birthday. It was the first hardback I possessed and, pretending to be sick, I took the day off school to read it, with long breaks between chapters to prolong the pleasure. But The Beatles didn't satisfy me as I'd imagined it would. It wasn’t like listening to Revolver, for instance, after which you felt satisfied and uplifted. The book disturbed and intoxicated me; it made me feel restless and dissatisfied with my life. After reading about the Beatles' achievements I began to think I didn't expect enough of myself, that none of us at school did really. In two years we'd start work; soon after that we'd get married and buy a small house nearby. The form of life was decided before it was properly begun.

To my surprise it turned out that the Fabs were lower middle class provincial boys; neither rich nor poor, their music didn't come out of hardship and nor were they culturally privileged. Lennon was rough, but it wasn’t poverty that made him hard edged. The Liverpool Institute, attended by Paul and George, was a good grammar school. McCartney's father had been well enough off for Paul and his brother Michael to have piano lessons. Later, his father bought him a guitar.

We had no life guides or role models among politicians, military types or religious figures, or even film stars for that matter, as our parents did. Footballers and pop stars were the revered figures of my generation and the Beatles, more than anyone, were exemplary for countless young people. If coming from the wrong class restricts your sense of what you can be, then none of us thought we'd become doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians. We were scheduled to be clerks, civil servants, insurance managers and travel agents.

Not that leading some kind of creative life was entirely impossible. In the mid-60s the media was starting to grow. There was a demand for designers, graphic artists and the like. In our art lessons we designed toothpaste boxes and record sleeves to prepare for the possibility of going to art school. Now these were very highly regarded among the kids; they were known to be anarchic places, the sources of British Pop Art, numerous pop groups and the generators of such luminaries as Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Ray Davies and John Lennon. Along with the Royal Court and the drama corridor of the BBC, the art schools were the most important post-war British cultural institution, and some lucky kids escaped into them. Once, I ran away from school to spend the day at the local art college. In the corridors where they sat cross-legged on the floor, the kids had dishevelled hair and paint-splattered clothes. A band was rehearsing in the dining hall. They liked being there so much they stayed till midnight. Round the back entrance there were condoms in the grass.

‘Eight Arms To Hold You' by Hanif Kureishi

Newspaper cutting of a page from Hanif Kureishi's article on The Beatles, with a photograph of the band

Photograph of John Lennon with his wife Cynthia and son Julian by Bob Whitaker, printed alongside ‘How the Beatles changed Britain’ (later titled ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’) in the Guardian Weekend supplement, 2–3 November 1991.

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Usage terms Martin Sharp (cover artwork): © The Estate of Martin Sharp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Bob Whitaker (photographs): © Robert Whitaker. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Hanif Kureishi (article text): © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

These kids were destined to be commercial artists, which was, at least, ‘proper work’. But anything that veered too closely towards pure art caused embarrassment; it was pretentious. Even education fell into this trap. When, later, I went to college, our neighbours would turn out in their furry slippers and housecoats to stare and tut-tut at each other as I walked down the street in my army surplus greatcoat, carrying a pile of library books. I like to think it was the books rather than the coat they were objecting to – the idea that they were financing my uselessness through their taxes. Surely nurturing my brain could be of no possible benefit to the world; it would only render me more argumentative – create an intelligentsia and you're only producing criticism for the future.

(For some reason I’ve been long under the impression that this hatred for education is a specifically English tendency. I’ve never imagined the Scots, Irish or Welsh, and certainly no immigrant group, hating the idea of elevation through the mind in quite the same way. Anyhow, it would be a couple of decades before the combined neighbours of south-east England could take their revenge on education via their collective embodiment – Thatcher).

I could, then, at least have been training to be an apprentice. But, unfortunately for the neighbours, we had seen A Hard Day's Night at Bromley Odeon. Along with our mothers, we screamed all through it, fingers stuck in our ears. And afterwards we didn't know what to do with ourselves, where to go, how to exorcise this passion the Beatles had stoked up. The ordinary wasn’t enough; we couldn't accept only the everyday now! We desired ecstasy, the extraordinary, magnificence – today!

For most, this pleasure lasted only a few hours and then faded. But for others it opened a door to the sort of life that might, one day, be lived. And so the Beatles came to represent opportunity and possibility. They were careers officers, a myth for us to live by, a light for us to follow. How could this be? How was it that of all the groups to emerge from that great pop period the Beatles were the most dangerous, the most threatening, the most subversive? Until they met Dylan and, later, dropped acid, the Beatles wore matching suits and wrote harmless love songs offering little ambiguity and no call to rebellion. They lacked Elvis's sexuality, Dylan's introspection and Jagger's surly danger. And yet ... and yet – this is the thing – everything about the Beatles represented pleasure, and for the provincial and suburban young, pleasure was only the outcome and justification of work. Pleasure was work's reward and it occurred only at weekends and after work.

But when you looked at A Hard Day's Night or Help, it was clear that those four boys were having the time of their life: the films radiated freedom and good times. In them there was no sign of the long, slow accumulation of security and status, the year-after-year movement towards satisfaction, that we were expected to ask of life. Without conscience, duty or concern for the future, everything about the Beatles spoke of enjoyment, abandon and attention to the needs of the self.

The Beatles became heroes to the young because they were not deferential: no authority had broken their spirit; they were confident and funny, they answered back; no one put them down. It was this independence, creativity and earning power that worried Hogg about the Beatles. Their naive hedonism and dazzling accomplishments were too paradoxical. For Hogg to wholeheartedly approve of them was like saying crime paid. But to dismiss the new world of the Sixties was to admit to being old and out of touch.

There was one final strategy that the defenders of the straight world developed at this time. It was a common standby of the neighbours. They argued that the talent of such groups was shallow. The easy money would soon be spent, squandered on objects the groups would be too jejune to appreciate. These musicians couldn’t think about the future. What fools they were to forfeit the possibility of a secure job for the pleasure of having teenagers worship them for six months.

‘Eight Arms To Hold You' by Hanif Kureishi

Newspaper cutting of a page from Hanif Kureishi's article on The Beatles, with a photograph of the band

Photograph of Paul McCartney and George Harrison by Bob Whitaker, printed alongside ‘How the Beatles changed Britain’ (later titled ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’) in the Guardian Weekend supplement, 2–3 November 1991.

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Usage terms Martin Sharp (cover artwork): © The Estate of Martin Sharp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Bob Whitaker (photographs): © Robert Whitaker. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Hanif Kureishi (article text): © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This sneering ‘anyone-can-do-it’ attitude to the Beatles wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anyone could have a group – and they did. But around the time that Hogg was worrying about the authorship of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and turning down the bass on ‘She's Leaving Home', and just as he was getting himself used to them, the Beatles were doing something that had never been done before. They were writing songs about drugs, songs designed to be enjoyed all the more if you were stoned when you listened to them. And Paul McCartney had admitted to using drugs, specifically LSD. This news was very shocking then. For me, the only association that drugs conjured up was of skinny Chinese junkies in squalid opium dens and morphine addicts in B-movies. What were the Mopheads doing to themselves? Where were they taking us?

On Peter Blake's cover for Sergeant Pepper, between Sir Robert Peel and Terry Southern, is an ex-Etonian novelist mentioned in Remembrance of Things Past and considered by Proust to be a genius – Aldous Huxley. Huxley first took mescaline in 1953, 12 years before the Beatles used LSD. He took psychedelic drugs 11 times, including on his death bed, when his wife injected him with LSD. During his first trip Huxley felt himself turning into four bamboo chairs. As the folds of his grey flannel trousers became ‘charged with is-ness’ the world became a compelling, unpredictable, living and breathing organism. In this transfigured universe Huxley realised both his fear of and need for the ‘marvellous’; one of the soul's principal appetites was for ‘transcendence’. In an alienated, routine world ruled by habit, the urge for escape, for euphoria, for heightened sensation, cannot be denied.

Despite his enthusiasm for LSD, when Huxley took psilocybin with Timothy Leary, at Harvard he was alarmed by Leary's ideas about the wider use of psychedelic drugs. He felt that LSD, if it were to be widely tried at all, should be given to the cultural elite – to artists, psychologists, philosophers and writers. It was important that psychedelic drugs be used seriously, as aids to contemplation. Huxley was especially nervous about the aphrodisiac qualities of LSD and wrote to Leary: ‘I strongly urge you not to let the sexual cat out of the bag. We've stirred up enough trouble suggesting that drugs can stimulate aesthetic and religious experience’.

But there was nothing Huxley could do to keep the cat in the bag. In 1961 Leary gave LSD to Allen Ginsberg, who became convinced the drug contained the possibilities for political change. Four years later the Beatles met Ginsberg through Bob Dylan. At his own birthday party Ginsberg was naked, apart from a pair of underpants on his head and a ‘do not disturb’ sign tied to his penis. Later, Lennon was to learn a lot from Ginsberg's style of self-exhibition as protest, but on this occasion he shrank from Ginsberg, saying: ‘You don't do that in front of the birds!’

Throughout the second half of the 60s the Beatles functioned as that rare but necessary and important channel, popularisers of esoteric ideas – about mysticism, about different forms of political involvement and about drugs. Many of these ideas originated with Huxley. The Beatles could seduce the world partly because of their innocence. They were, basically, good boys who became bad boys. And when they became bad boys, they took a lot of people with them.

Lennon claimed to have ‘tripped’ hundreds of times, and he was just the sort to become interested in unusual states of mind. LSD creates euphoria and suspends inhibition; it may make us aware of life’s intense flavour. In the tripper’s escalation of awareness, the memory is stimulated too. Lennon knew the source of his art was the past, and his acid songs were full of melancholy, self-examination and regret. It’s no surprise that Sgt Pepper's, which at one time was to include ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’, was originally intended to be an album of songs about Lennon and McCartney’s Liverpool childhood.

Soon the Beatles started to wear clothes designed to be read by people who were stoned. God knows how much ‘is-ness’ Huxley would have felt had he seen John Lennon in 1967, when he was reportedly wearing a green flower-patterned shirt, red cord trousers, yellow socks and a sporran in which he carried his loose change and keys. These weren't the cheap but hip adaptations of work clothes that young males had worn since the late Forties – Levi jackets and jeans, sneakers, work boots or DMs, baseball caps, leatherjackets – democratic styles practical for work. The Beatles had rejected this conception of work. Like Baudelairean dandies they could afford to dress ironically and effeminately, for each other, for fun, beyond the constraints of the ordinary. Stepping out into that struggling post-war world steeped in memories of recent devastation and fear – the war was closer to them than Sergeant Pepper is to me today – wearing shimmering bondsman's outfits, crushed velvet, peach-coloured silk and long hair, their clothes were gloriously non-functional, identifying their creativity and the pleasures of drug-taking.

By 1966 the Beatles behaved as if they spoke directly to the whole world. This was not a mistake: they were at the centre of life for millions of young people in the West. And certainly they’re the only mere pop group you could remove from history and suggest that culturally, without them, things would have been significantly different. All this meant that what they did was influential and important. At this time, before people were aware of the power of the media, the social changes the Beatles sanctioned had happened practically before anyone noticed.

Musicians have always been involved with drugs, but the Beatles were the first to parade their particular druguse – marijuana and LSD – without shame. They never claimed, as musicians do now – when found out – that drugs were a ‘problem’ for them. And, unlike the Rolling Stones, they were never humiliated for drug-taking or turned into outlaws. There's a story that at a bust at Keith Richards's house in 1968, before the police went in they waited for George Harrison to leave. The Beatles made taking drugs seem an enjoyable, fashionable and liberating experience, like them, you would see and feel in ways you hadn't imagined possible. Their endorsement, far more than that of any other group or individual, removed drugs from their avant garde and generally squalid associations, making them part of mainstream youth activity. Since then, illegal drugs have accompanied music, fashion and dance as part of what it is to be young in the West.

‘Eight Arms To Hold You' by Hanif Kureishi

Front cover from the Guardian Weekend supplement, featuring a collage artwork depicting The Beatles, one of whom is smoking, alongside a union jack and crowns

Collage by Martin Sharp, inspired by the Beatles’ tale of smoking marijuana in the toilets of Buckingham Palace when they collected an MBE in 1965. The artwork was used for the front cover of the Guardian Weekend supplement, 2–3 November 1991, to accompany Hanif Kureishi’s article on the band.

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Usage terms Martin Sharp (cover artwork): © The Estate of Martin Sharp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Bob Whitaker (photographs): © Robert Whitaker. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Hanif Kureishi (article text): © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Allen Ginsberg called the Beatles ‘the paradigm of the age’, and they were indeed condemned to live out their period in all its foolishness, extremity and commendable idealism. Countless preoccupations of the time were expressed through the Fabs. Even Apple Corps was a characteristic sixties notion: an attempt to run a business venture in an informal, creative and non-materialistic way.

Whatever they did and however it went wrong, the Beatles were always on top of things musically, and perhaps it is this, paradoxically, that made their end inevitable. The loss of control that psychedelic drugs can involve, the political anger of the 60s and its anti-authoritarian violence, the foolishness and authenticity of being pop stars at all, rarely violates the highly finished surface of their music. Songs like ‘Revolution’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ attempt to express unstructured or deeply felt passions, but the Beatles are too controlled to let their music fray. It never felt as though the band was going to disintegrate through sheer force of feeling, as with Hendrix, the Who or the Velvet Underground. Their ability was so extensive that all madness could be contained within a song. Even ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’ are finely engineered and controlled. The exception is ‘Revolution No. 9’, which Lennon had to fight to keep on the White Album; he wanted to smash through the organisation and accomplished form of his pop music. But Lennon had to leave the Beatles to continue in that direction, and it wasn't until his first solo album that he was able to strip away the Beatle frippery for the raw feeling he was after.

At least, Lennon wanted to do this. In the 70s, the liberation tendencies of the Sixties bifurcated into two streams – hedonism, self-aggrandisement and decay, represented by the Stones; and serious politics and self-exploration, represented by Lennon. He continued to be actively involved in the obsessions of the time, both as initiate and leader, which is what makes him the central cultural figure of the age, as Brecht was, for instance, in the 30s and 40s. But to continue to develop, Lennon had to leave the containment of the Beatles and move to America. He had to break up the Beatles to continue to lead an interesting life.

I heard a tape the other day of a John Lennon interview. What struck me, what took me back irresistibly, was realising how much I loved his voice and how inextricably bound up it was with my own growing up. It was a voice I must have heard almost every day for years, on television, radio or record. It was more exceptional then than it is now, not being the voice of the BBC or of southern England, or of a politician; it was neither emollient nor instructing, it was direct and very hip. It pleased without trying to. Lennon's voice continues to intrigue me, and not just for nostalgic reasons, perhaps because of the range of what it says. It's a strong but cruel and harsh voice; not one you’d want to hear putting you down. It's naughty, vastly melancholic and knowing too, full of self-doubt, self-confidence and humour. It's expressive, charming and sensual; there's little concealment in it, as there is in George Harrison's voice, for example. It is aggressive and combative but the violence in it is attractive since it seems to emerge out of a passionate involvement with the world. It's the voice of someone who is alive in both feeling and mind; it comes from someone who has understood their own experience and knows their value.

The only other public voice I know that represents so much, that seems to have spoken relentlessly to me for years, bringing with it a whole view of life – though from the dark side – is that of Margaret Thatcher. When she made her St Francis of Assisi speech outside 10 Downing Street after winning the 1979 general election, I laughed aloud at the voice alone. It was impenetrable to me that anyone could have voted for a sound that was so cold, so pompous, so clearly insincere, ridiculous and generally absurd. In this same voice, and speaking of her childhood, Thatcher once said that she felt that ‘to pursue pleasure for its own sake was wrong’.

In retrospect it isn't surprising that the 80s melange of liberal economics and Thatcher's pre-war Methodist priggishness would embody a reaction to the pleasure-seeking of the 60s and 70s, as if people felt ashamed, guilty and angry about having gone too far, as if they'd enjoyed themselves too much. The greatest surprise was had by the left – the ideological left rather than the Labour Party – which believed it had, during the 70s, made immeasurable progress since Sergeant Pepper, penetrating the media and the Labour Party, the universities and the law, fanning out and reinforcing itself in various organisations like the gay, black and women's movements. The 60s was a romantic period and Lennon a great romantic hero, both as poet and political icon. Few thought that what he represented would all end so quickly and easily, that the Left would simply hand over the moral advantage and their established positions in the country as if they hadn't fought for them initially. Thatcher's trope against feeling was a resurrection of control, a repudiation of the sensual, of self-indulgence in any form, self-exploration and the messiness of non-productive creativity, often specifically targeted against the ‘permissive’ 60s. Thatcher’s colleague, Norman Tebbit, characterised this suburban view of the Beatle period with excellent vehemence, calling it: ‘The insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third-rate decade, the Sixties’.

The amusing thing is that Thatcher's attempt to convert Britain to an American-style business-based society has failed. It is not something that could possibly have taken in such a complacent and divided land, especially one lacking a self-help culture. Only the immigrants in Britain have it; they have much to fight for and much to gain through being entrepreneurial. But it's as if no one else can be bothered – they're too mature to fall for such ideas.

Ironically, the glory, or, let us say, the substantial achievement of Britain in its ungracious decline, has been its art. There is here a tradition of culture (or argument or cussedness) caused by the disaffections and resentments endemic in a class-bound society, which fed the best fiction of the 60s, the theatre of the 60s and 70s, and the cinema of the early 80s. But principally and more prolifically, reaching a worldwide audience and being innovative and challenging, there is the production of pop music – the richest cultural form of post-war Britain. Ryszard Kapuscinski, in Shah of Shahs, quotes a Tehran carpet salesman: ‘What have we given the world? We have given poetry, the miniature, and carpets. As you can see, these are all useless things from the productive viewpoint. But it is through such things that we have expressed our true selves’.

The Beatles are the godhead of British pop, the hallmark of excellence in song writing and, as importantly, in the interweaving of music and life. They set the agenda for what was possible in pop music after them. And Lennon, especially, in refusing to be a career pop star and dissociating himself from the politics of his time, saw, in the 70s, pop becoming explicitly involved in social issues. In 1976, Eric Clapton interrupted a concert he was giving in Birmingham to make a speech in support of Enoch Powell. The incident led to the setting up of Rock Against Racism. Using pop music as an instrument of resistance and propaganda, it was an effective movement against the National Front at a time when official politics – the Labour Party – were incapable of taking direct action around immediate street issues. Punk too, of course, emerged partly out of the unemployment, enervation and directionlessness of the mid-70s.

During the 80s, Thatcherism discredited such disinterested and unprofitable professions as teaching, and yet failed, as I've said, to implant a forging culture of self-help. Today, as then, few British people believe that nothing will be denied them if only they work hard enough, as many Americans, for instance, appear to believe. Most British know for a fact that, whatever they do, they can’t crash through the constraints of the class system and all the prejudices and instincts for exclusion that it contains. But pop music is the one area in which this belief in mobility, reward and opportunity does exist.

Fortunately, the British school system can be incompetent, liberal and so lacking in self-belief that it lacks the conviction to crush the creativity of young people, which does, therefore, continue to flourish in the interstices of authority, in the school corridor and after four o'clock, as it were. The crucial thing is to have education that doesn't stamp out the desire to learn, that attempts to educate while the instincts of young people – which desire to be stimulated but in very particular things, like sport, pop music and television – flower in spite of the teacher's requirement to educate.

The sort of education that Thatcherism needed as a base – hard line, conformist, medicinal, providing soldiers for the trenches of business wars and not education for its own sake – is actually against the tone or feeling of an England that is not naturally competitive, not being desperate enough, though desperate conditions were beginning to be created.

Since Hogg first played ‘She's Leaving Home’, the media has expanded unimaginably, but pop music remains one area accessible to all, both for spectators and, especially, for participants. The cinema is too expensive, the novel too refined and exclusive, the theatre too poor and middle class, and television too complicated and rigid. Music is simpler to get into. And pop musicians never have to ask themselves – in the way that writers, for instance, constantly have to – who is my audience, who am I writing for and what am I trying to say? It is art for their own sakes, and art which connects with a substantial audience hungry for a new product, an audience which is, by now, soaked in the history of pop music and is sophisticated, responsive and knowledgeable.

And so there has been in Britain since the mid-Sixties a stream of fantastically accomplished music, encompassing punk and New Wave, northern soul, reggae, hip hop, rap, acid jazz and house. The left, in its puritanical way, has frequently dismissed pop as capitalist pap, preferring folk and other ‘traditional’ music. But it is pop that has spoken of ordinary experience with far more precision, real knowledge and wit than, say, British fiction of the equivalent period. And you can’t dance to fiction.

In the 1980s, during Thatcher's ‘permanent revolution’, there was much talk of identity, race, nationality, history and, naturally, culture. But pop music, which has bound young people together more than anything else, was usually left out. This tradition of joyous and lively music, created by young people from state schools, kids from whom little was expected, has made a form of self-awareness, entertainment and effective criticism that deserves to be acknowledged and applauded but never institutionalised. But then that is up to the bands and doesn't look like happening, pop music being a rebellious form in itself if it is to be any good. And the Beatles, the most likely candidates ever for institutionalisation, finally repudiated that particular death through the good sense of John Lennon, who gave back his MBE, climbed inside a whitebag and wrote ‘Cold Turkey’.

This essay is published with the script of Hanif Kureishi's film, London Kills Me, by Faber and Faber. Bob Whitaker's photographs are from The Unseen Beatles (Conran Octopus).

  • Hanif Kureishi
  • Hanif Kureishi grew up in Kent and studied philosophy at King’s College London. His novels include The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, The Black Album, Intimacy, and The Last Word. His screenplays include My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Le Week-End. He has also published several collections of short stories. Kureishi has been awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the PEN/ Pinter Prize, and is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His work has been translated into thirty-six languages. He is professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University.