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Rock goes to college

In the first of a new series of narratives on higher education, Phil Pilkington looks at the history of rock on campus
This article is more than 4 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

For well over sixty years, the social events that students have attended have taken on a special meaning in the history of HE.

Some of the musical genres historically associated with student life on campus are embarrassing. “Trad jazz” was subsumed within an idealised striving for “authenticity” of struggle which was destroyed by the inspired approach of the real thing being imported from the US. Folk was a marginal interest, much lampooned by other students, with a commitment to a native form of authenticity – if nothing else, membership of a folk club was at first almost an obligation to be a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

It was rock that really made its mark. “Rock goes to college” was the title of a BBC TV series in the 1970’s which featured, unsurprisingly rock bands at campus venues. For some time, rock music was subsidised on campus both directly and indirectly through performances in student canteen halls and sports halls, organised the by student entertainment secretaries of students’ unions.

World domination

The musical form went from the UK college circuit to North American stadia in the 70s, to world domination in the 80s. It continues today in an etiolated form more related to spectacle than musical performance. But its campus roots are part of the mainstream mythology for many. Examples of the genre are The Who Live at Leeds (then the largest canteen in England) and The Lanchester Arts Festival (held in its cavernous sports hall).

The UK “college circuit” has been much vaunted as the cradle of (rock) musical innovation. To take one example – Cream may have met Jimi Hendrix at the Regents Street Polytechnic in 1966, but their other gigs that year included the Atlanta Ballroom, Woking (twice) and the Public Baths, Sutton – not to mention the Tulip Festival Barn, Spalding, Lincolnshire.

Live music nights gave the baby boomer generation of alumni fond memories of their time at university – perhaps more so than their lecturers could do. A generation of student volunteer humpers of Marshall stacks on to and off stage and into tour vans had a vicarious brush with future rock legends, and met their need to carry large bunches of keys looped onto their belts as a badge of status.


Before the industrialisation of rock bands touring and the invention of the lighting rig, arts students were indulged in producing light shows of oil and water mixed on the teaching aid of overhead projectors. This was considered to be ‘groovy’ and quite often ‘far out’ – although it was a plagiarism of Mark Boyle’s happenings for Pink Floyd and others in the mid-sixties.

By the eighties, Students’ Unions’ influence began to wane with the increasing financial risks of hiring rock bands. The Solicitor General’s ‘advice’ that staging entertainments using charitable funds granted via the public purse (i.e. from the parent institution) was ultra vires was a challenge to some students’ unions, who had been spending between a third and a half of their grant from the institution on subsidising concerts.

(The aforementioned Solicitor General was Sir Michael Havers, who served in Edward Heath’s government, and later under Margaret Thatcher as the Attorney General. He was infamous for comments as prosecutor for the Crown about those murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, “and sadly, some of the victims were not prostitutes”. He represented the Crown in the discredited cases of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven; all wrongly convicted as IRA bombers and much much later pardoned and released from prison)

There was also the limited capacities of campus venues to meet the increasing costs of rock – Emerson Lake and Palmer’s three pantechnicons of kit being exemplary – and the increasing corporate professionalism of the music industry as an industry. Ironically, this was brought about by the previous ‘Ents Secs’ becoming entrepreneurs in band and tour management – Harvey Goldsmith had been the Ents Sec at Sussex University.

The 80s saw other changes too – the efflorescence of DIY punk, the birth of fanzines,  counter culture situationist spectacle in place of a hegemonic spectacle, or just bigger budgets. There was an aggressive rejection of a perceived student culture of middle class complacency in the face of increasing national tensions of policing, racism and industrial action – exemplified in The Clash. Like much of the punk era, this perception was ill-informed and manipulated by a new wave of impresarios – and some branches of new wave thrived via their association with specific institutions – the Manchester based new wave of Magazine, Joy Division, et al, and at Coventry the 2 Tone record label and bands.

The original monoculture

In truth, rock had depended on a student monoculture. The increase in student numbers towards a mass HE system from the mid-1980s onwards meant an increase in female students and ethnic minority students. This more diverse student profile, combined with financial risks and the corporatisation of rock, reduced the profile of rock.

DJ-ing – always important as a support or cheap filler for the main acts – became an independent form of its own. It was not recognisable as the original form of ‘toasting’ over reggae backing tracks (1960s) nor the later rapping from NYC (late 70’s onwards). DJ-ing became divided into niche entertainments – jungle, bangla, rap, retro, mainstream/cheesy – sorting students into identity groups – Black British, Asian British, White British, etc. through musical genres as a part of sectional identity as a depoliticised form of self-expression.

Then in the 90s, the last gasp of a musical genre which might claim to have a legacy as a reflection of the times seems to have been the emergence of the ‘Britpop’ of Blur, Oasis and Suede as live music bookings.

No other market but students

By the 00s, the growth of corporate entertainment chains focussing on the student market where there was a concentration of students in cities guaranteed further decline. “There is no other youth market in town than students” became “there is no other market in town but students”, as an imperative for these large but struggling companies. And then there was the related decline in alcohol consumption. Cross subsidies from wet sales often kept an entertainments programme financially viable; in the new millennium, the sales of alcohol halved in 5 years and then halved again over the next 5 years. With millennials’ custom of irregular binge drinking – once or twice a month with spirits mixers and not beer or lager – there was the end of a vibrant and important role of the campus as a site for musical innovation or challenge.

Today, the focus has become one of an ‘event’ rather than performance, with the growth of balls (Summer, Christmas, freshers, halls of residence) as a strange continuation of school/high school proms, but combined with a superficial take on an Oxbridge tradition (dinner jackets and ball dresses).

Because of its state sponsored foundation and its monocultural impact – the student rock scene of the 70s could be said to be a statist cultural form. But as a mass HE system evolved, was there also a decline in collective self-consciousness, a sense of otherness, that would have previously prevented such exhibitions as Summer Balls except amongst the blithely unaware elite?

5 responses to “Rock goes to college

  1. Three Rock Goes to College programmes were filmed at Hatfield Polytechnic (now University of Hertfordshire) including the first ever public outing of “Message in a bottle” by The Police. Another gig to remember (sadly not televised) featured The Strolling Bones and Bootleg Beatles on the same night. Great days – largely ended by tighter fire regulations. Summer Balls continue apace though…

  2. The decline in ‘youth music tribes’ (possibly the last one was ‘Brit Pop’) coincided with the downturn in SU gigs… or was it the other way round… the transit before the roadie… or the roadie before the transit…

  3. As student treasurer at Leeds SU, between 1965 and 1967, I signed band contracts which were not at all embarrassing. With Jazz 625, we saw MJQ as well as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, with octogenarian Pops Foster. The sixties was a transition period, so there were also Manfred Mann, Lulu, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the roaring success of a mailitary band from Catterick camp playing 1940s US swing, at a cost, based on hourly rates, of £168-14s-8d, or something close to it. I also claim to have signed up The Who before they came to fame later at Leeds, but that may be a false confection of memory. The only embarrassment I remember was one drunken student at a Christmas ball asking John Mayall’s Blues Breakers ‘Can you play a conga?’. On the down side, we did see the first indications of drugs being sold, and I exposed a fraud of collusion between one Ents Sec and a booking agent to overprice contracts. He was a friend, so we warned him we were tipping off the police, and he disappeared. So, there was life before Rock as Phil P conceives it, and we made a profit from ticket sales as well as from the bar/s.

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