The late US soul singer Dobie Gray provided the theme tune for uppity working-class kids in 1960s Britain.
Dobie Gray, the US soul singer who provided the theme tune for a new generation of uppity British working-class youth in the 1960s, has died. Gray’s 1965 underground dance hit, ‘The “In” Crowd’, fitted like a bespoke Italian suit for the swanky and urbane kids who had even the upper classes chasing their shirt tails. Future-oriented and cosmopolitan, with little time for the outmoded conventions and deference that had choked the country for so long, they were the ‘in’ crowd.
This new, can-do optimistic mood was epitomised by, but by no means restricted to, the snappily-dressed hipsters known as Mods. The Mods first appeared in early 1960s’ Soho. They wore sharp Italian suits, frequented Soho’s Italian coffee shops and danced to the exuberant music of young black America, where equally momentous social changes were afoot. First the Mods and then, soon after, working-class kids up north, developed a strong affinity with the sound coming from across the Atlantic. In America, young blacks were making music that reflected their experiences of contemporary urban life. Years later, UK music paper, the NME described ‘The “In” Crowd’ as ‘Gray’s postcard-to-home from the wonderful Big City’. Life in America’s booming cities held out, for the first time, the possibility of relative freedom and affluence for young black people, something that had been way beyond the reach of even their parents.
Many ordinary young Britons were drawn to the sound of black America and, interestingly, it took British working-class kids The Beatles to really sell the music into the US mainstream. Even today, if you check the obituaries, Dobie Gray is remembered for his much more sedate, country-tinged 70s hit ‘Drift Away’ than ‘The “In” Crowd’ and his other 60s classic ‘Out on the Floor’ that British kids identified with and loved so much.
Through the Sixties, the tastes and outlook of the young working class came to dominate British cultural life. From kitchen-sink drama to gritty theatre, to novels such as Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the life of ordinary people was expressed and explored in the mainstream as well as in more lofty, art-house circles. It was open season on privilege. Posh folk put away their Eton blazers, BBC announcers toned down their ‘received pronunciation’. Comics such as Peter Cook and TV shows like That Was The Week That Was took their cue from the new mood and finally started to chip away at the choking culture of deference and took a pop at the political and social elite. Posh was bad and old fashioned. Working class was modern, hip and good.
Seismic as many of these changes were in British cultural life, they were no social or political revolution. The fundamentals of society remained intact, even if the ruling elite were put on the back foot for a while. The novelty ebbed and the injection of working-class energy eventually wore off. There was no going back to the old ways. Even Thatcher couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle and reimpose ‘Victorian values’. But she did finally manage to silence the working-class voice and push its interests completely out of the public arena.
And here we are today, where the idea of young working-class people as a political force, let alone trendsetters and arbiters of taste for everyone else, seems almost unimaginable. The open contempt and disgust expressed for the lives and habits of ordinary people smacks more of Victorian notions of racial superiority than 1960s egalitarianism. Far from being fashion leaders, ordinary young people are dismissed as chavs, binge-drinkers and delinquents who do little more than ape the brash tastes of ‘over-paid’ working-class Premiership footballers and their WAGs. The message about the working class today seems to be: they’re crude, materialistic and coming to a shopping mall or drive-thru McDonald’s near you.
Today’s ‘in’ crowd are the ‘trendies’ of east London - Old Street, Hoxton, Shoreditch and various ‘creative hubs’ in ‘regenerated’ bits of cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. Or so we’re told. In reality, they’re mostly ex-arts students, graphic designers, film-makers and app-builders, flattered by government hype. They may be trendy hipsters with tattoos and saggy trousers, working in converted warehouses. They may not wear suits, work nine-to-five or show deference to the big boss at the end of the corridor. But there’s nothing in the slightest bit unconventional about this any more. Tony Blair threw open the doors of Number 10 to Damien Hirst, Oasis and others stars of the music and art worlds in the 90s, and David Cameron is still talking up the ‘creative sector’ today.
article continues after advertisement
It’s hard to see how a group so coveted by the government can ever shake things up. What’s more, they’re probably more steeped in contemporary morality of sustainability, anti-consumerism and general anti-humanism than most other sections of society.
Maybe if today’s young trendy art students, from whatever social class, could begin to seriously break with these prevailing ideas, and ditch the cynical ‘it’s all ironic’ approach to the world then it’s feasible they could begin to come up with some interesting ideas. And if young working-class people, like the kind who were so vilified for attempting to defend their local areas during the summer riots, begin to defer less to the powers that be, and do and think for themselves, then we might see the possibility of a genuinely new and vibrant youth culture. That would be interesting. And who knows what their musical soundtrack will be?
‘The “In” Crowd’ I’m in with the in crowd, I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd and I know what the in crowd knows
Anytime of the year, don’t you hear? Dressing fine, making time
We breeze up and down the street, we get respect from the people we meet
They make way day or night, they know the in crowd is out of sight
I’m in with the in crowd, I know every latest dance
When you’re in with the in crowd, it’s so easy to find romance
Any time of the year, don’t you hear? If it’s square, we ain’t there
We make every minute count, our share is always the biggest come out
Other guys imitate us, but the original is still the greatest, in crowd!
Any time of the year, don’t you hear? Spendin’ cash, talkin’ trash
I’ll show you a real good time, come on with me, leave your troubles behind
I don’t care where you’ve been, you ain’t been nowhere til you’ve been in
With the in crowd, with the in crowd, in crowd!