I interviewed the author Jon Savage for The Word issue of July 2007. The occasion was his new book, Teenage: The Creation Of Youth 1875-1945. Here I have included some extra material there was no space for in the magazine.
When we talk about youth movements we tend to mean mods and teddy boys and goths and so on. We rarely think of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend – yet they were on average younger than the hippies.
It’s a common quip to compare rock festivals to the Somme, but here’s one difference: the Somme probably involved more teenagers.
Adolescents were also the shock troops of an emergent consumer society: today’s all-conquering pop culture is the bastard child of teenage emotions and sharp-eyed capitalism.
The rock writer Jon Savage knows more about the post-War pop life than almost anyone. His 1991 punk history, England’s Dreaming, is a classic of the genre. Now he’s gone way back in time. His new book, Teenage: The Creation Of Youth 1875-1945, is a magisterial, 550-page examination of teen culture’s pre-history – from Boy Scouts to Bobbysoxers, from Zoot Suiters to the Hitler Youth. Forget your pop pot-boilers: here’s a work to share the shelves with Anthony Beevor and Peter Ackroyd.
In person, however, Savage is still a music fan of delightful erudition, and a waspish critic of those who have displeased him, chiefly London’s duller pop hacks. (“What you must do, Paul,” he once advised me, “is rip your address book in two every year, then simply throw one half away.”) From his home in North Wales he drives around Liverpool Bay to visit me, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Sage of Beaumaris…
PDN: You’ve done the counter-intuitive thing, really, ending a history of the teenager in 1945, just where most historians would begin it.
JS: I got to about 150,000 words of my first draft and I’d only reached the end of the 1920s. I’d created a rod for my own back by being very thorough. Then I liked the idea of ending where the story begins. I didn’t want to go forward into teddy boys and mods and all that because it’s been done and there are thousands of books about Elvis. There have been so many histories of post-War youth culture I thought it was great to do one on pre-War. I could have gone even further back. I mean, you read The Sorrows Of Young Werther [Goethe’s 1774 novel] and it’s like a Smiths lyric. It’s very self-dramatising and you think, “Oh my God, here’s the start of all that.”
Were you conscious of crossing a divide outside your appointed realm?
I was nervous, but that was silly and self-censoring because one ought to be more confident. But I did feel the need to be very thorough and very measured. And not to put pop journalese language in there, although academic jargon can be just as ghastly. But then I get cross with myself and say, Why shouldI feel like this? What’s wrong with being a pop writer? I was conscious of crossing a divide. But that’s very exciting as well. It’s supposed to be a voyage of discovery.
When did generational consciousness begin?
The word, as we use it, came into focus among avant garde groups in the 1910s, saying “We are young and we are separate from the old.” And that gets a huge boost through the idea that emerged during and after the First World War, that the old sent the young off to be killed. And Rupert Brooke emerges as an icon of Doomed Youth. So the idea of a generation gap kicks in during the 1920s. The most upsetting bits of the book to write were about the First World War, which I found incredibly hard because it’s so toxic. The first time I went to the Imperial War Museum to do research I came out and was sick into a bush.
I do think that as far as this country was concerned the First World War completely destroyed it and it never recovered.
It’s striking how your teen history isn’t just a sideshow to proper grown-up history. Teens are always in the thick of it, whether as soldiers or as dissidents.
Young people in wartime are always the first to get sent off, aren’t they? Even the person who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand was a 19-year-old revolutionary. And there’s this whole Russian terrorist strand which I didn’t have room for, like the original Nihilists who assassinated the Tsar.
So, it’s always the young who fight but I didn’t do too much on youths in the army because once they joined they left their adolescence behind.
I have absolutely no sympathy with people of our generation who feel that they are lesser people because they didn’t serve in the war. That’s complete crap. You can’t wish one generation’s experience on yourself, and I’m extremely happy that I haven’t had to serve in any war. I suppose I would have done my best, like everybody else. But as it happens we haven’t had to, so there’s no point wishing you had.
Each generation has its own task, even the much maligned baby boom generation, which is why Tony Blair was so disappointing in his gung-ho bellicosity over the war. You think, “Did you actually listen to Free properly, in 1969? I think you probably didn’t.” Because I listened to all that hippy stuff and I really believed it and do you know what? I’m quite glad I did.
But I have great admiration for my parents’ generation now. My mother still lives in London and I rang her after the 7/7 bombings to ask if she was all right and she said, “Well, you know I lived through the war. I didn’t leave because of Hitler and I’m not going to leave now.”
We never had to go through that, thank God, and wanting to have gone through it is quite ridiculous.
Anne Frank was killed only eight years before I was born. It wasn’t that long. Somebody had a go at me for putting Anne Frank next to the launch of Seventeen magazine. But somebody else told me they were in tears when they read that. It was quite deliberate and I make no apologies. But getting reviewed, what you realise is that no two people ever see things the same way.
Then you describe the anti-Nazi youths who adopted US swing music as a badge of rebellion.
The swing stuff was a revelation to me, just how big it was in the US and the impact it had in Europe. The Hamburg “swings” went round annoying the Nazis. You couldn’t be political, so they were attitudinal – wearing English clothes, liking American music. Until eventually they were all caught and packed off to concentration camps or the Eastern Front. A Gestapo officer said, “Anything that starts with Duke Ellington ends with an attack on the Fuhrer’s life.”
And then the Zazous, the Parisian swings under the occupation, were sarcastic, as the French are. They would go around calling the Germans “Greta Gestapo” and deliberately going to these terrible Vichy films just to laugh at them.
Another of the most upsetting things was the story of the White Rose [young German Catholics] and how courageous they were and what happened to them, the way they were executed, it was heartbreaking and they were poster boy/poster girl gorgeous and incredibly brave. What moral courage to resist Hitler and to be so lucid. Their analysis was spot on.
Did youth culture also undermine the post-War totalitarians of the East? When the Berlin Wall came down, there were these long-hairs in Pink Floyd T-shirts scrambling over to meet us.
Well, it’s pleasure, isn’t it? The problem is that hedonism has become too much of a mass industry now. Too many buttons are being pushed. I would like less emotionalism, less of this bastardised therapy culture, the Diana syndrome, it just makes you want to vomit. And I feel more sympathy than I ever thought I would with our parents’ stiff upper lip generation. I think you can have excessive stimuli. This drive to consume has a downside. We are going to have a huge scramble for resources and it’s going to get very ugly.
Does scarcity bring intensity?
Yes, you load so much more on to it. If you have a lot of choice things get diffused. Scarcity is very good for focus. Which punk had and the Hamburg swings had.
In peace time, it seems that youth is always either a threat or a market.
Always. It’s either “Teenagers doing terrible things to people,” like happy-slapping, or it’s “Teenagers want houses and mortgages just like the rest of us.” Adolescents represent the future, and adults are often rather fearful about the future, so they project that on to adolescents. And of course adolescents do regard it as one of the principal functions of their lives to annoy adults. I know I did. I remember walking along streets in Worthing, being surly and unpleasant. The kids where I live now make a pretty good fist of that, hanging around and being rebarbative.
They have entertainment at every turn. Good thing or bad?
Just different, I can’t really judge it any more. I go round the houses on it. In a way it’s great. The luckier teenagers have a better relationship with their parents than we did. They can express more than we did with parents who’d been through the war and had the stiff upper lip thing. The model has changed, but I try not to judge today with my own values. It seems ill-mannered in one who has benefited from youth culture to denigrate it just because it’s not turning out the way you wanted.
No generation before or since, though, defined itself as young like the 1960s lot, did it?
No, and I think it was because of coming out of the war. Pete Townshend is very eloquent about this and he said a lot of what The Who did was exorcising war damage. He was born in May, ’45 when awful things were still happening. In the week when the RAF were bombing Hamburg to shit, Mick Jagger was born. It’s interesting to speculate on whether that makes a difference. And that stiff upper lip, so necessary in the war, had to be unlocked. And that’s what the ’60s generation did.
If I could project myself back in time I would definitely go back to April 1966 and see the Velvet Underground. The mid-’60s pop culture was fantastic, because it had that first-time focus and boundless confidence. There was no post-modernism.
Pop won. That’s the victory of pop. It’s become a major part of the economy and the spearhead of Western culture around the world.