Musical Ramblings

The British Sense of Decorum & Music

Often attributed to George Bernard Shaw but more likely Oscar Wilde, the actual quote was apparently, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” 

The USA and the UK shares a language but there are so many differences between our two cultures. Many of those difference reside in those essential little things.  

Little things, as you know, matter most of all because little things get under your skin. Little things are often taken as sacrosanct, they are taken as read. Beyond appraisal. They are part of the how the world moves or does not. Little things give people a sense of solidity and comforting predictability. 

So when those little things are questioned or challenged, it can shake you up. Probably more than it should. Probably out of proportion to their real importance.

Let me give you an example. 


In fact, let me take you back in time.

I remember, on one particular occasion, listening to the radio back in the 70s. I must have been what, 12? Thirteen? Something like that. At that moment, I had stumbled onto and was listening to jazz. This piece of music was a live recording, taped within an iconic New York jazz club, perhaps? Who knows?

What I do remember is this. About a third of the way through the music itself, one of the musicians stepped forward and played a solo on the saxophone. When he was finished in his task, he stepped back and the group carried on.

My personal, earth-shaking moment was this. The audience applauded. 

The British Sense of Decorum

This one moment shook me to the core. I even forgot the music because of my confusion and bewilderment. 

Why was the audience applauding? Had something happened away from the stage to trigger this spontaneous reaction? It couldn’t have been anything to do with the music. Why did I think that? Because the music hadn’t finished yet. 

So the music carried on. A trumpet player contributed a solo, stepped back and, would you credit it, there was that applause again. 

I couldn’t understand it. The music still had not finished. How – thought 13 year-old I – how thoroughly disrespectful to applaud in the middle of a performance. 


I felt completely grumpy about this but my demeanour only worsened when the music finished because not only did the audience applaud, they then acted wholly inappropriately by hollering and shouting. They even added a series of tasteless noises that sounded suspiciously like “whoop, whoop”. 

The British Sense of Decorum

I switched off the radio. Had the world gone mad? This undisciplined, discourteous response to the artist on the stage was certainly not something you would hear in the UK during that time. It’s not something you would have heard or seen during the regularly televised variety show, Sunday Night at the Palladium, let me tell you.

Am I the only one that recalls this sense of behaviour? UK audiences back then would react to a stage artist(s) in a wholly different way to my American brethren. UK audiences of that time would sit, listen and wait. 

The British Sense of Decorum

Check out YouTube if you don’t believe me. ELP’s 1970 London Lyceum concert begins with raucous applause. Then the audience settles down to listen and all goes quiet because the band is…creating. Creating on the stage. They must not be disturbed. During the quiet moments on the stage there is silence from the audience. There is no whooping. When one song is ended, there is respectful applause. That dies away. Another song begins and that behaviour cycles around.

Take the Caravan LP, Caravan & the New Symphonia. This live, 1973 Theatre Royal performance is full of quiet areas, full of mid-performance silences but the tension is never broken by the audience who seem wholly wrapped up in the moment. 

Which is part of the reason why Beatlemania, screaming girls, drowned out performances, audience chaos, bodies flying around and about, the expulsion of bodily fluids and fainting was so alarming, disturbing and threatening to many people in the UK. It just wasn’t ‘done’. 


It also shows that this uncontrolled chaos wasn’t the norm. Even then. Take another UK-based live concert of the time, Booker T. and the MG’s 1967 performance in London – again on YouTube. 

The young audience, half of them looking like clones of their mum and dad no doubt, sit there in their hats and their coats. Their expressions reveal how engrossed they are in the music but they sit in silence. Waiting. Drinking it all in. Some gently clap (not too loudly, now), others nod imperceptibly. One chap looks down to the ground, concentrating. Contemplating. Studious.

The British Sense of Decorum

As for the American musicians on the stage? I wonder if they were thinking that they were doing badly that evening? Where was the reaction they were used to seeing and hearing from their compatriots? 

Little did they know, they were a smash hit. What they were facing that evening was old fashioned British reserve. What I want to know is this: where did it go?

(And one last question – if you’re reading from different country – including the USA – have you noticed a similar cultural change? Do live audiences respond in a different way when compared to the 60s, 70s or 80s? I’d love to know.)

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay 
Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay 
Image by Pexels from Pixabay 
Image by Mike Wall from Pixabay 
Image by Carlos Alvarenga from Pixabay 

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  • Reply
    Jeff Glotzer
    8th June 2022 at 10:06 pm

    Yes! The exuberance of the 80’s and 90’s is quite dead for most educated, rock-oriented AOR Americans. Most folks don’t want to look silly or appear ‘uncool’, and they’d rather bop their heads in musical agreement than let it all fly out like their Gen X siblings and ‘dance like no one is watching’.

    While jazz or the blues concerts contain vastly different elements of social behavior, the first thing I noticed about Gen Y is they are too embarrassed to let their excitement show to anyone in public. This freedom was what separated us from the English, and I lament its passing. Now I am one, alone in a crowd. Perhaps it’s the musical genre that is responsible for the social behavior more than anything else. I would think that kids and adults who love R&B pop are so entrenched in Tik-Tok culture that it encourages dancing and letting go of oneself, unlike other genres of music.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      9th June 2022 at 11:42 am

      Thanks for that, Jeff and yes – very interesting, I agree with all of that. Your last point about social media, the platform that encourages the young (some oldies too but mainly the young) to spill every last fragment of their personal lives towards the world at large (here’s the details of my breakfast, here’s the details of my relationship break-up, here’s my last 5 minutes of thoughts packed into a tweet, etc), might even encourage and reinforce that free and easy behaviour. After all, if you’re experienced in social media, who are the strangers now? Aren’t we all ‘friends’? And if there’s no strangers, why feel self conscious any more?

  • Reply
    Roger Perry
    8th June 2022 at 10:45 pm

    Beatlemania (the subject of the sentence,) is singular, not plural. Thus Beatlemania WAS, not WERE.
    This error is not uncommon in what we might call popular journalism.
    On the argument itself, I saw the Beatles at the Astoria Finsbury Park at Xmas 1964, but heard mostly just screaming.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      9th June 2022 at 11:42 am

      Thanks Roger – I do care about all of that but I sometimes let slip if I type this sort of thing at the end of a long day so thanks for the nudge.

  • Reply
    T Rea
    8th June 2022 at 11:44 pm

    I too have been going to concerts since my early teens. Now in my early 60’s, I have experienced both of the scenarios you write about in your article. I however, believe that the genre of music can diction the audience reacts and I have no issue with audience applause mid song at some shows, but would e pect silence until the end of the song on other occasions. Heavy rock usually has more audience participation than folk or solo artists and god forbid if someone pipes up at a classical music concert. So there is no one size fits all answer in my opinion. I certainly feel the atmosphere can be improved greatly by a bit of whooping now and again.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      9th June 2022 at 11:45 am

      Yes, there are always exceptions to these things, that’s correct. Even so, the ELP and Caravan examples I mentioned would not, I feel, be treated in the same way today, if those events were duplicated.

  • Reply
    Steven Oldfield
    10th June 2022 at 5:05 pm

    Live music has always been a passion of mine but before lockdown put the brakes on it I was becoming disillusioned by the number of people who try to talk over performances and ruin any possibility of becoming immersed in the occasion.
    At a Paul Simon concert at Nottingham Arena I had to turn around and tell the three women ceaselessly chattering behind me that when I wanted to spend £80 on a ticket to hear them talk about how inappropriate Lisa’s dress was last weekend I’d tell them and until that time would they mind being quiet. Or something similar (ish).

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      13th June 2022 at 12:20 pm

      Well done, Steven. I’m glad you did that. I’m sure Lisa is too.

  • Reply
    T Rea
    13th June 2022 at 12:42 pm

    Oh, that’s becoming very common at concerts, I wonder why these people attend in the first place. I was at a Kate Rusby concert a few years back when Kate herself told people to stop talking whilst she was performing. Unfortunately the security staff do not seem to want to take any action against these people.

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