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The strange death of youth tribes - Al Farquhar

Blog | By Al Farquhar | May 23, 2022

The way we were: Rick the rebel (Rik Mayall), Vyv the punk (Adrian Edmondson), hippy Neil (Nigel Planer) and cool Mike (Christopher Ryan). The Young Ones, 1982

‘Rockers, duffle-coated Beatniks, Mods and Bohemians’: where have these tribes gone? By Al Farquhar

‘You’re not going out like that?’

Incredulous parents first started asking this question of their teens in the 1950s. Previous generations had been defined by religion or class; these kids were the first of their kind with disposable income and radio stations playing their choice of music.

Their commercial clout attracted sophisticated marketing and, over the next 50 years, they formed a series of tribes whose look, attitude and behaviour were inherently British. Where have all those tribes gone today?

Teds appeared first in the fifties, defining themselves by their flamboyant clothing, age and love of rock ’n’ roll.

Throughout the sixties, new groups kept emerging: Rockers, duffle-coated Beatniks, Mods and Bohemians. All were anti-establishment. When the baby boomers amalgamated causes under the broad banner of ‘hippy’, the messages of John Lennon and Tariq Ali caused consternation among the moral majority.

Joining a tribe gave youngsters a philosophical and cultural identity, plus a great new record collection. The seventies and eighties were the glory years: skinheads flicked a V sign at hippie culture, followed by suedeheads and Space Rockers dipped in LSD. The Northern Soul, Glam and diametrically opposed Prog and Pub Rock scenes all strutted down our high streets. Punk mutated into Post Punk and Anarcho Punk, to which there was a right-wing reaction with Oi, before New Romantics ditched the politics in favour of flamboyance. There was heavy regional bias to Headbangers and the Two-tone movement while the hairspray of Goths and Psychobillies threatened the ozone layer.

For a brief egalitarian moment at the end of the eighties, Ravers brought down the barriers of background and race, before promptly splitting into a many-headed beast of mutually dismissive electronic styles. There were occasional cross-pollinations: Soul Boys & Disco, Punk & Rasta before New Age Travellers & Ravers bonded so successfully that the Major government felt the need to legislate against them. Crusties, Shoegaze and the Baggy phenomenon marked the last of the clearly identifiable pop cultural clans.

Music and fashion just didn’t have the same driving force as the millennium drew to a close. New interests such as food and tech competed for attention, and dressing up was something embarrassing your mum and dad did.

The internet had the greatest impact. When Spotify lists every song ever recorded and social media plugs you in to the world, there is no space for subcultures to incubate. Gaming, Grime and Skating persist but they are not as all-consuming as the original cliques, when every penny would be spent on your scene’s accoutrements and you would speak only to your kind.

Key motivating factors in joining tribes were revelling in the tabloid hysteria your leaders inspired and offending passers-by. But the shock value has gone and the tribal raison d’être with it. Old ladies just don’t care any more if you’ve got a green Mohican and a pet rat and you smell of solvent.

RIP the great youth tribes.