Watching old videos about youth culture on YouTube can be illuminating, inspiring and let’s face it, entertaining. Seeing the old haircuts, clothing and seeing shapes not thrown in public for decades is a special piece of history that should be treasured. It was through watching these videos that I found Funk Music 20th Century Box (1980) which is a short documentary presented by a young Danny Baker. It was originally shown on terrestrial television in the UK to shine a spotlight on the particular youth culture at the time known as Jazz-Funk.
The Jazz-Funk scene was made up of lots of ‘tribes’ which were groups of young Jazz-Funk fans particular to a single geographical location, each tribe had its own name and uniform. The documentary focusses on a tribe called “The Brixton Frontline”, it follows a young man named Junior Fairweather who is a computer programmer from Brixton and part of this tribe. We follow Junior to get a sense of what belonging to one of these groups involves. He is seen trawling record shops such as Solar Records in Brixton London underground station with his fellow tribe members Eddie, Kevin and Phil and then in the pub with more friends discussing the latest records that they have bought or would like to buy. Later on we see Junior and friends dressed in military style clothing which is the tribe’s uniform on their way to a Jazz-Funk night. He describes his involvement with the Brixton Frontline as a “membership of a club, although there are, in fact, no members. It’s just a collective gathering.” He goes on to say “Whenever we go out, we don’t go out as individuals, we go out as The Frontline”. Although this military dress might seem quite a bold or provocative choice, they seem to fit in seamlessly with other tribes who have similarly random and obscure themes, as there is no reported rivalry between tribes. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to the names or the uniforms but there does seem to be a genuine unity among them.
DJ Chris Hill describes the coming together of tribes as the coming together of a family. He specifically refers to the nights and weekends that he DJs at as reunions, as in ‘family reunions’. This is supported by the location chosen for the weekend’s away, a holiday camp in Caistor, Great Yarmouth. The sort of caravan park that the majorty of these people would have stayed in in their school holidays with their own families.
What is interesting about this documentary is the idea of youth culture becoming an alternative family. There isn’t any mention of this group being alienated by mainstream culture or disaffected in any way, which can be typical of other youth cultures. There seems to be no political message and tribe members do not speak of feeling rejected by society or their own families. This, for me, makes their choice to stick together all the more powerful. They aren’t filling a gap where a biological family or support network should be and they aren’t uniting to change society or the status quo. They are choosing to come together as a family just because they want to.
David Grant of the band Linx describes the Jazz-Funk scene as united and multi-racial, which, in 1980s Britain was important, as race was a contentious topic. He explains this unity as a result of being united by music, rather than clothing or ideology.
There have of course been other subcultures that have been brought together by music in this way but the tribes in this documentary are fascinating because they are on the one hand so individual—each tribe is based in a different geographical area and has its own uniform and customs. But on the other, these individual groups regularly come together to create one large self-identified family.
This is demonstrated most clearly in the documentary’s closing scene. We see young people dressed in uniforms and costumes dancing together, lifting one another up in the air. This is a visual representation of the united, multi-racial group that Junior, Chris and David have been talking about. The most touching scene is the final one, a crammed nightclub moving as one unit singing and dancing along to the 1979 Billy Paul song “Bring the Family Back Together”.
You can watch the full documentary above. BLYNKT doesn’t own the video, but hopes that you enjoy this blast from the past!