Beyond Pop: The Extremes of 1970s Britain

Written by Jack Bennett.

The music of the 1970s reflected the extreme divisions and polarisations within Britain, revealing the intersection of popular culture, politics and economics. What emerged during this decade was a cyclical process of adoption and outpacing regarding cultural trends. The idealised utopianism adopted by the youth of the 1960s receded with the appearance of hard-edged styles, which was then reversed during the 1970s, seeing the emergence of hyper-Mod working-class cool in the form of skinheads, building upon the earlier Teds and Mods. While the influence of glam rock introduced a resurgent androgyny to the streets of Britain, challenge and usurpation of style and cultural pre-eminence became the defining factor of the decade. Nowhere is this better presented than in the punk movement. The music of the 1970s mirrored these cultural and stylistic fluctuations: this can be seen in the way Soul picked up in Northern clubs from Wigan to Blackpool to Manchester; the struggle between the concept albums of the art-house bands and the arrival of punkier noises from New York in the mid-seventies and the dance crazes that ebb and flow in popularity. Musical styles begin to break up and head in many directions in this period, coexisting as rival subcultures across the country. These changes were fundamentally driven by the traversing of tumultuous, uneven and complex socio-political landscapes.

Currents of popular music transformed during this decade, both through revolutionary change and continuation. Notably, despite the rise of new styles such as reggae and ska, this did not result in the demise of rock ‘n’ roll nor Motown. The Rolling Stones and Yes carried on, oblivious to the arrival of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Within this melting pot of musical and stylistic chaos during the 1970s, it is important to emphasise that the life it lived and its soundtrack are not quite the same. For instance, between the early fifties music characterised by Lonnie Donegan and the mid-seventies’ stylings of Led Zeppelin, real disposable income exactly doubled. Yet from 1974 until the end of 1978, living standards actually went into decline, marking an end to the long working-class boom. It was this dissolution of the previously upheld Post-War Consensus which had committed consecutive Prime Ministers and leading parties to the maintenance of low unemployment and social welfare support. By the 1970s, as a consequence of economic instability and pressures such as the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 (which resulted in nation-wide strikes and a three-day working week), the nation was plunged into darkness.

This darkness subverted the earlier optimism under which British pop was invented – between 1958 to 1968 – when the economy was undergoing rapid expansionism. The changing mood entering the 1970s was caused by increasing unemployment, as the total number of Britons out of work passed 1 million by April 1975. There was a general attitude that a blanket of bleakness had been cast over the nation, and socio-cultural realist escapism was sought as a remedy. This second phase involved the sci-fi ambiguities and glamour of Bowie, the gothic, mystical hokum of the heavy rock bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and the druggy obscurities of Yes. The second half of the seventies were the years of deep political disillusion, strains which seemed to threaten to tear the unity of the UK: Irish terrorism on the mainland, a rise in racial tension, and widespread industrial mayhem. Most notable of these socially, politically and economically calamitous and transformative events was the Winter of Discontent in 1978. Due to widespread industrial unrest and strike action bringing the nation to its knees, The Sun reported the tumultuous events and portrayed Prime Minister James Callaghan’s intransigence towards the situation through the headline “Crisis? What Crisis?”. The optimism which had helped fuel popular culture suddenly began to run dry. What emerged was a darker, nightmarish inversion of the optimism and vibrancy that embraced the music and culture of the 1960s.

A darker, nightmarish inversion which was expressed most notably through punk. This creatively explosive, politically astute cultural and musical movement offered an anti-establishmentarian, liberating assault on mainstream decencies grounded in the philosophy of nihilism. One of the most iconic bands of this movement, The Sex Pistols, following their formation most explicitly positioned themselves as the antagonists of The Beatles. As a result, music became a source of power in the battle with authority and repression, expressing the self-loathing and pessimistic attitude of the decade. In response to the punk aesthetic and attitude there developed a seeping moral panic within Britain. Surrounding the growth in prolific, confrontational, violence and controversial actions – punk and the Sex Pistols in particular became a publicity engine attacking the established rock pantheon and encapsulating the emotion of the decade. The press and politics only served to further these already ingrained opinions. From concerts known for their wild and uncontrollable crowds, to juvenile political attacks in songs such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and, in the year of the Silver Jubilee, ‘God Save the Queen’. Punk became a vehicle of expressing opposition to the social and political net which enmeshed the nation during the 1970s.

Yet punk was the first revival of fast, belligerent popular music to concern itself with the politics of the country, and this was the first time since the brief ‘street fighting man’ posturing of the late sixties when mainstream society needed to notice rock. On the other side of the political divide was an eruption of racist, skinhead rock, and an interest in the far-right political orientation. Among the rock stars who seemed to flirt with these ideas were Eric Clapton, who said in 1976 that ‘Powell is the only bloke who’s telling the truth, for the good of the country’ – referring to the infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech made by the Conservative MP Enoch Powell. As well as David Bowie, who spoke of Hitler as being the first superstar, musing that perhaps he would make a good Hitler himself. These notions were a far cry from the 1960s utopian optimism in the future for Britain and the youth culture. Reacting to the surrounding mood, Rock Against Racism was formed in August 1976, helping create the wider Anti-Nazi League a year later. Punk bands were at the forefront of the RAR movement, including above all The Clash and The Jam. ‘Black’ music such as reggae, ska and soul, with strong roots in the Caribbean immigrant populations throughout Britain as well as African American influences, became a major cultural force, crossing racial divisions and promoting decisive turn against the rearing head of a racist demagogue in the music culture of Britain. Ska revival bands such as the Specials and the reggae-influenced The Police and UB40 had a greater impact than typical ‘popular music’. The seventies produced, in the middle of visions of social breakdown, a musical revival which revived the ‘lost generation’. This effectively marginalised the racist skinhead bands and youth culture which was strongly related to the National Front at this time and were renowned for violent, racially motivated attacks across the country, pushing them out of the social and musical environment of Britain. As one cultural critic of the time put it, ‘A lifestyle – urban, mixed, music-loving, modern and creative – had survived, despite being under threat’. Despite the era-defining social, political and economic struggles of the 1970s, music became an expression of cultural values and movements. The radical nature of generational transformation in the 1970s produced a new youth culture that was increasingly splintering during this period.

For Geoff Eley, the decade was the storm centre of a change in the narrative of post-war national identity, destabilised by the 1960s and rendered more aggressively patriotic by the New Right. Defined by an internal chronology of escalating problems. Lynne Segal counters this preconceived narrative, arguing that during the 1970s major strides and flourishment occurred in relation to homosexual rights, anti-racist and feminist movements. For example, in 1975-76, while embroiled in rampant inflation around 25%, legislation was enacted on equal pay, sexual discrimination, race relations, domestic violence, and consumer rights. This demonstrates the ambiguity and fracture of the decade, which for many saw liberation and power rather than just crisis and decline. A decade of grit and glamour.


Image source: Patrick Sawer, ‘’We ran the NF out of town’: how Rock Against Racism made Britain better’, The Telegraph, 27 April 2018,, accessed on 8 February 2020. 

Black, Lawrence. “An Enlightening Decade? New Histories of 1970s’ Britain.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 82 (2012): 174-86. 

Marr, Andrew. A History of Modern Britain, London: Pan Macmillan (Reprints edition), 2009. 

British Culture and Society in the 1970s: The Lost Decade Edited by Laurel Forster and Sue Harper, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

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