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Englishness, Pop and Post-War Britain


Kari Kallioniemi


Studies in Popular Culture

Bristol: Intellect, 2016

Hardcover. xi+239 p. ISBN 978-1783205998. £45


Reviewed by Trevor Harris

Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)




This very neatly packaged study of pop and national identity – the fourth volume in a series devoted to “Studies in Popular Culture” published by Intellect Books, Bristol – is a reworked version of the Finnish author’s PhD thesis. The book is divided into four fairly substantial chapters, each of these being sub-divided into four or five shorter sections. The first chapter is a general discussion of “Pop Englishness”, though its title – “Strategies for Conceptualising Notions of Pop-Englishness” – does not presage an uncomplicated route to a precise, overarching definition of the identity in question. The other three chapters approach Pop-Englishness in a chronological manner, “From Tommy Steele [...]” (chapter 2), through the “Multiplying of Notions of Pop-Englishness” (chapter 3), to “[...] Britpop and Back” (chapter 4).  

The author provides a long introduction, but his conclusion amounts only to a page and a half tacked on to the end of chapter 4. This is an important shortcoming, and one which seems to underline the difficulty the author has in developing and communicating a clear position in respect of his main theme. This, it seems to the present reviewer, in turn illuminates the significance of the bulkiness of each chapter: as though the author had struggled to divide the argument of what is a relatively short book into more clearly identifiable stages. As it stands, within each chapter and within each section, the writing often seems to proceed by accumulation of examples, rather than the detailed analysis of a smaller number of cases. It is very clear that the author knows his corpus extremely well, but the effect of this accumulation on the reader is to create the impression that s/he is being rather led around the houses. True, the author is writing in a foreign language: a fact which might justifiably have encouraged him to exercise a certain caution. But the prose, on the contrary, often aims for an adventurous turn of phrase: a high-risk strategy which does not always work. We are told, for example, that “the ideology of rock as a rockspeak is a cross-generic plunderer” [6]; and we are – at the first reading at least – somewhat confused to discover that it is part of the Anglo-Saxon worldview “to confront the future by ignoring the present while creating a syndrome of false memory as a historical inversion” [27]; formulations like these tend to make us agree that “a haziness of romantic intuitive sensibility is so crucially a part of rock discourses” [38].


The text, particularly in the early pages of the book, does constitute something of a challenge, possibly labouring under the misconception – although it is most certainly not alone in that category – that in order to be interesting it is necessary to be wordy. The title of the book, after all, seems to point plainly to a social and cultural history of pop music in post-war Britain. But the execution is not as straightforward as the title would suggest. At times, the writing tends towards the performance of a particular idiom rather than the discussion of a particular problem.


The result is an interesting, but curious book whose aim is: “to tell the history of post-war Britain by looking at it from the point of view of the complex relationship between pop and nationhood” [13]; to investigate popular culture by inquiring into pop music, from its early manifestations in the 1950s through to “Britpop” and the “obvious homage to the pop-flavoured view of the identity of the host nation” [200] projected during the 2012 Olympics opening / closing ceremonies.


Kallioniemi looks at the wider, national links between pop music, culture and identity, but clearly relishes talking about those pop heroes who, one feels, have made an indelible mark on him. There is no shortage of material here and Kallioniemi covers a lot of ground. Yet there are some strange omissions from the list of “Songs and Albums” in the index [231-239]. Is it possible, for example, to write about Britain and pop music since the war without attempting some extended analysis of the pop phenomenon that was ABBA (whatever one’s personal view of their music may be)? This may be for very mundane reasons of available space. In part, it is also no doubt because the author’s choice of artists and albums, as he himself admits in the foreword to the book, is dictated by an English culture “observed from outside as a Finn in [his] somewhat isolated society of the 1970s and 1980s”. And it could also be a function of the author’s approach which leaves to one side what Andrew Harrison, writing on the BBC Culture website in 2014, calls “the dreams and disappointments of those who never wanted to rebel”. The identity Kallioniemi is writing about seems to remain the preserve of singers and groups who were fashionable because they were, in one way or another, edgy, rebellious. But what of “suburbia’s hopes and fears”? As Harrison points out, “there are an awful lot more people living there”.


The approach of the book, in this sense, is open to discussion: whether from the standpoint of “post-war Britain” or in the more immediate context of Brexit. One of the most prominent features of political, social and cultural change in Britain since the war, and one which came to a very abrupt head in June 2016, is surely the status of the Union and, consequently, of the meaning of Britishness. Kallioniemi, ostensibly, takes this into account in his title, emphasising “Englishness”. Yet, in practice, “England” and “Britain” tend to be used interchangeably. In a short section [18-20] devoted specifically to a discussion of “English or British?” the devolved identities of Celtic Britain are never more than briefly acknowledged: there is surely more to Scottish identity, for example, than the “pop” the author is talking about. The history of the politicised nature of the difficulties of the Union since the war is rather left to one side in favour of this “pop” identity which, as the author shows, if one is Welsh, Irish or a Scot, merely seems to “function in the music industry as a marketable guarantee of originality” [20]. This is not what Kallioniemi is arguing should be the case, but omitting to contextualise devolution further means that “English” tends to equate with “British” in the pop world.


So who, exactly, does this “Pop-Englishness” really apply to? The 1960s certainly loom large in the explanation. According to the old quip, if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there. But very few people who lived through the 1960s were in fact present at the “Sixties,” as becomes clear from the author’s own discussion of Morrissey, a figure who clearly fascinates Kallioniemi and to whom he devotes considerable space. And, despite Kallioniemi’s fascination for pop “dandies,” in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and notwithstanding the (conscious or unconscious) Baudelairean and Warholian resonances in their behaviour the author highlights, such people were, one suspects, fairly thin on the ground. Or again, the pop artists intent on projecting eccentric images of themselves – which they may or may not have actually believed in – were, again, limited in number and any “look” they managed to impose on a section or sections of their fans (who may or may not have seen it as something more than simply dressing up for a Saturday night out) was transitory in the extreme, as many who have lived through the entire period under discussion here would confirm. The character of that pop identity appears prima facie to be assimilated to registering its essentially performed, mobile, and evanescent nature, expressed via what many observers would probably consider to be adolescent experiments in search of one’s “self”. These “pop” identities, spawned in a consumer society excessively conscious of itself as such, were more often than not marketing gimmicks, strategies devised to entertain, shock or amuse, and to separate (young) people from their money: once one fad had exhausted itself, the various industries involved moved on to the next income-generating wheeze which appeared to find traction with the target groups of young people who had cash to flash. The English identities created, alluded to, exploited, and so on, seem almost random – precisely because everyone did “their own thing”–, highly individualised, momentary trends coalescing, at best, into hundreds of subcultures.


The difficulty lies in attempting to discern for the chosen period the social trends within or beneath this trendiness. And there is no doubt that the trends concerned are anything but simple to synthesise and systematise. Kallioniemi’s breadth of knowledge and obvious affection for many of the post-war British groups, albums, films and television programmes he talks about are apparent on every page. But, in practice, he stays too close to his subject. The book, as a result, gradually builds to resemble an intricate collage; a structure which can be entered from many points, and its different sections read in almost any order. It is significant that there is no index of subjects or themes, but instead an index of names, and of albums. Many of the same pop artists / groups are referenced more than once, some of them many times. At every turn, one feels the author keen to mention example after example: so much so, that the reader often has trouble seeing the wood for the trees.


However, despite these questionable features of his overall approach, Kallioniemi, throughout, makes a lot of valid points. He shows the ease with which one became (and can still become) a “rapidly exalted” [98] member of the pop elite. He underlines the infatuation with pop, and the sometimes worrying mass hysteria among young people [176], to say nothing of the pop elite’s infatuation with itself. He correctly identifies the potent sense of nostalgia which inhabits Pop Englishness at many levels – a theme which runs throughout the book –, not least the pop world of the Sixties undergoing the “social and cultural revolution” [72]. Kallioniemi also gets that sense of an “England both haunted and hypnotised by its past” [198], patriotic, even nationalistic, awash with “mock (post-)imperial” [81], merchandised Union Jacks: although to say that Britain was “trapped within its past” [196] is probably overstating the case. At his best, Kallioniemi combines his fascination for Pop Englishness with a social history in which high and low cultures come into regular contact. And he is surely right to point out the fundamentally conservative character of much pop culture, and the “increasing re-appropriation of the relationship between popular and established forms of culture” [174]. He is strong on the fundamental ambivalence, indeed contradictions, of Pop Englishness, especially its uneasy, rather than “special,” relationship with the United States. Indeed, the undeniable globalism of British pop, the dominance of London and the Anglocentric character of much of Britain’s pop identity find themselves in a constant struggle, as the author often shows, against insularity and an attendant regionalism: this is translated, particularly, by the “north-south divide” – another theme which runs throughout the book; as does the tension between modernity and tradition.


On this latter point, and the ways in which “low” Pop Englishness re-appropriates “high” traditional cultural referents, the author could have pointed out that tension between modernity and tradition is a general, not an exceptionally English, characteristic of cultural evolution. Here, opening up the discussion, even briefly, to a consideration of the wider history of the creation and propagation of national and cultural identities – as examined by John Carey, Brian Doyle, Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, Anne-Marie Thiesse, E.P. Thompson and many others – would have greatly strengthened the author’s case. Instead, Kallioniemi’s resolutely contemporary perspective, punctuated by frequent, but often very brief historical references, tends to create a rich, but repetitive structure of myriad references to Pop Englishness balanced on a rather fragile historical base. In this sense, the author’s tendency to hop, for example, from late-twentieth-century pop music to nineteenth-century literature, collapsing historically distant references into the same plane of discussion, can be a disconcerting experience. The on-stage antics of many pop performers and the way their products were marketed did, indeed, quote or exploit such canonical figures as Carroll or Lear. The author refers to these two as “absurd” or “eccentric”, when what is actually being pressed into service by Pop Englishness is the very rich English nonsense tradition. Or again, we are told that, “There is a continuity between the grim and macabre eccentricity of a character like Uriah Heep and the Dickensian street-ruffians of the Sex Pistols” [23]. This may or may not be true: quite possibly not, since Heep’s obsequious, sycophantic behaviour does not seem, on the face of it, to correspond at all to the Pistols’ raw and provocative aggression. The useful integration of such historical references would require a much more deliberately interpretive approach. But Kallioniemi proceeds more by juxtaposition and accumulation, as in: “The pop bric-a-brac of [the] 1960s echoed the postmodern heritage culture and nostalgically recalled a mythical Victoriana, Edwardianism, Village Greens and Lewis Carrollian nursery rhymes, linked to underground and (continental-influenced) surrealist pop follies” [105]. Few would want to deny that the cultural continuities are there, but in order to bring something to the argument they need to be set out much more clearly.


In the end, the main interest of this book lies in the fact that Pop Englishness is now old enough to form the subject of cultural histories. The book is written with reference mainly to pop music heard from abroad, with a preference for the “unexpected” and the “marginal”, and from a country – Finland – which, as the author admits “had its own peculiar relationship with the West” [ix]. The book argues, in what would perhaps now be regarded as a rather conventional manner, that “the continuity and the significant change in the 1960s are the keys to understanding the reconstruction of British identity for most of the post-war period” [75]. Completed just prior to the Brexit vote, Kallioniemi’s book presents a vision of Pop Englishness which the author may already have been drawn to modify. Other recent events in Britain tend to support his overall argument, however, and underline the continuing importance of “youth” in cultural terms, but also its clear re-emergence in political terms. The two were brought together in Jeremy Corbyn’s much-publicised visit to the 2017 Glastonbury Festival, which might well have provided Kallioniemi with a fitting conclusion to his book.


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