Growing up in Storrs, Conn., David Simonelli’s interest in British rock bands like The Beatles and The Who kindled in him a general interest in Britain, thanks largely to the lyrics of the songs.
“Hearing a song like ‘Magic Bus,’ with words like ‘thruppence’ and ‘sixpence,’ I’d wonder ‘what is thruppence?’ I’d immediately go and start looking this stuff up, and that’s what got me interested in British history,” said Simonelli, YSU associate professor of History since 2003.
That interest in British music and culture launched a decade-long project, resulting in Simonelli’s new book, Working Class Heroes: Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s, published in January by Lexington Books.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut in 1988 and a master’s degree at Tulane University in 1991, Simonelli entered the Ph.D. program at Tulane and began looking at dissertation topics.
Despite his interest in music, Simonelli’s initial thought was to focus his dissertation on the re-acclimatization of veterans after World War I. “I described the topic to a Russian History professor at Tulane, and he told me it was ‘boring’ preceded by some colorful language,” Simonelli said. “I was shocked, but thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
That left the door open for Simonelli’s interest in British music. “I just thought back to why I got interested in British history in the first place, and it was largely because I liked British rock bands…and I was always interested in what they were singing about,” he said.
“I had always thought, the more I studied British history, that there was some sort of connection between social class and what I was hearing and seeing in the music and images of the musicians and the things that they talked about.”
The dissertation was the foundation for the book and the start of a journey to document changes in British society and the socio-economic classes during the 1960s and 70s through the lens of rock music. “Essentially I wanted to write something for an academic audience that people might actually want to read,” he said.
Several trips to Britain later, one for more than a year, and endless days trolling through music journals, newspapers and archives, the result is a book about two subjects that are covered independently, but rarely together: “This is a subject that tends to be taken up by people doing literary theory, or rock music critics, or sociologists, but not the kind of thing that a historian tends to take on,” he said. “Some things music critics would know about, some things historians. I brought those two fields together.”
What’s next for Simonelli? With this book finished just before his sabbatical next year, he has another project that has been on the back burner for a while: a book on the 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition. Check this space in 10 years.
Story by Harry Evans