I didn’t live through the 1960s; I wasn’t even born during that decade and yet that era has had such a big impact on me that I feel I should share some thoughts on the subject. Of course this is where I should define exactly what the subject is. One decade is a fairly big subject; and just what aspect of a ten year period am I considering and is it really ten years. Is it really so clear cut?
To be precise, I’m talking about the Sixties as a creative influence, a constant reference for what has come afterwards in the Arts. It’s an odd thing, since nobody ever taught me that there was something ‘special’ about the 1960s in the context of the 20th century, although that would appear to be the latter day suggestion- I kind of taught myself that truth. If indeed it is one. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s involved lots of good cultural reference points for one to reminisce about in later yeas, but the ‘70s seemed grimmer and more about ‘making do’. Like the morning after a great party. Or is that just the way I chose to see it?
I think I became aware at a relatively early age that a lot of my favourite TV heroes were from a slightly earlier age. The Magic Roundabout crew and Doctor Who were veterans from that previous decade and a lot of the ‘70s kids shows were obviously created by ‘60s hippies gone ‘straight’. Some of the more surreal aspects of Bod and Crystal Tips and Alastair need no further explaining! As for the American imports coming to British screens, Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon production line started to look as if it’d just come back from Woodstock. The Scooby-Doo gang, introduced in Scooby-Doo, Where are you? in 1969, actually looked like a reasonable representation of ’60s youth (Velma looked pretty ‘square’, but she was still a world away from Huckleberry Hound). And sorry to be obvious, but look at The Banana Splits. I mean, we take it for granted now, but what was a kid going to think seeing those live action bits back in the late sixties? Even the puppet shows were suddenly unlike anything else. The leap in innovation and mod-cool seen in Captain Scarlet, made Thunderbirds look positively old hat. But kitschy cartoons aside, what is it that has me still obsessed with the styles and sounds of the decade four removed from our own?
There was the post war optimism and the seeds sown in the 1950s reaching full bloom. There was certainly less worry for youth, who were having a whale of a time by all accounts, especially with much more disposable income. Social barriers of all kinds were being brought down and we could all read “Lady Chatterley’s lover” too! Also, at a time when political scandals are ten a penny it’s odd to look back and see Christine Keeler in her model pose behind that chair. It was a scandal because we’d never really known it before; politicians were, by and large, untouchable pillars of the establishment. A lot of things were new but the novelty wears off after a few decades of the same (or similar). No wonder the top 40 singles chart often looks like a tired concept. Not everyone is (literally) singing from the same song sheet. The demise of Top of the Pops wasn’t all that surprising in hindsight.
Style wise the 1960s was the future as it never really was. The radical designs (sometimes dated but not always unfashionable) were a space age vision that has never quite gone away, but lingered as a subliminal influence. Most older people at the time probably detested Panton’s chairs, Lava lamps and inflatable furniture. But for the kids it made perfect sense. It was style for the here. For the Now. There was only the 1960s and that was Modern. The Here and Now. A lot of it looked like earlier Modernist design mass produced and made cheap, which was sort of the point I guess. Even the Art started to look transient and reduced; the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstien and Hockney all made sure Art went “Pop!”, but what was left after the original surprise? Of course it went the way of all utopian vision. When everyone has money it all looks and feels better, by the early Seventies the political and social landscape had changed.
The really nostalgia and revivalist aspects of the ‘60s perhaps first came into play in the early ‘80s (I remember short lived chart toppers Tight Fit even released an album called Back to the Sixties) Here in the UK, The Avengers began re-runs on Channel 4 and The Beatles were back in the top ten in 1982 with their first single “Love me do” (which ironically had only made No.17 twenty years earlier). The films made during the ’60s still excite me, particularly the ones made just outside the traditional studio system, when the said studios were allowing a little more freedom to cash in on the youth explosion. Douglas Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance is a film that still influences, as subversive and as innovative as it was then (and it wasn’t even an immediate hit, actually being shelved for two years until 1970). Even the big blockbusters were full of verve and creativity, spanning a whole spectrum of delights: from the grand almost spiritual spectacle of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to the pop fun of The Beatles’ Help! to the paranoid acid-nightmare influenced horror of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (perhaps hinting at the darker side of the ’60s dream; light shining from a mountain invariably attracts the darkness. I have at least one friend who should never see that film!). Even on a local level, things got creative and interesting. I documented my thoughts on British kitchen sink drama elsewhere, but there was definitely something in the water in many provincial settings.
But beyond the aesthetics of it all, the Cleopatra inspired hair and make-up, the mini skirts and kinky boots, the stylish cars, the Pop Art exuberance and the damn good music I can’t define why I’m constantly fascinated by the period. London may well have “swung” for the rich and famous, or just those in the know, but people still got on the tube and went to work in the morning. And that’s the thing to make clear about the time. People were happily getting on with their lives as usual, but I think, even to the most uncultured and uninformed, there was a feeling of optimism and growth. ‘Growth’ wasn’t the first word I normally think of when considering the 1960s, but it’s probably a very good one for the time “You’ve never had it so good”, us Brits were told in 1963, the same year that Keeler took her clothes off for the camera.
One of the most useful documents of the time will always be television as it shows how the styles and attitudes were changing. BBC presenters in the early ‘60s still had a ‘stiff upper lip’ quality, even when faced with big news like the Perfumo Scandal. Yet by and large, television (like cinema before it) was gaining confidence and getting ready to influence the world. I think that’s one reason why my taste in television is quite happily stuck in the past. When I watch the titles to the first colour season of The Avengers, you see Steed use his umbrella rapier and Emma Peel use her gun. But Steed catches himself a rose and Emma shoots the top off a bottle of champagne. It’s party time. So whilst The Avengers was the oddest little show on TV within its genre anyway, it pretty much defined the irreverence of the ‘60s spy and detective shows. You wouldn’t get away with such exuberant wit now, or creative risks (although for such risks we perhaps have to look to the ground breaking likes of Cathy come home, rather than sci-fi shows. By the looks of current TV, like Black Mirror, such risks appear to be occurring again, especially since television now has a respect it may not have had in the past. Mad Men pays homage to the era, but looks better than most series that would have been produced at the time.). But then again, look at the original Star Trek. It seems obvious now, that it would have to be the fantasy and science fiction shows that really pushed the boundaries. The shift from what we know allows for more risks, although you don’t have to look to hard to see the challenge to an outdated real life paradigm. You couldn’t have had the first on-screen multi-racial kiss in Coronation Street or Peyton Place though, that’s for sure.
In 1990 I discovered the so-called “Acid rock” scene of the late ’60s. American rock isn’t the most subtle form of pop expression, but there are some real gems from that era, often fuelled by a youthful indignation at the horror of the Viet-Nam War or horrors closer to home. The cross-over from the protest songs of the Folk genre was inevitable I suppose, so Dylan going electric makes perfect sense to me with the hindsight of five decades. The music was also increasingly reaching the youth through TV and film, which was a new development. As a great example of that, the soundtrack from Easy Rider alone is emotive enough, but Jefferson Airplane’s “White rabbit” sums up the era in one concise single. A slightly odd and hypnotic little song, a two minute Pop Bolero that also had a wonderful feeling of forbidden magic; beautiful and strange but with a warning of darkness. It suited 1967 so well, as the song was clearly Alice takes Acid on the way to Wonderland. After all, wasn’t that how you got there?
By then the underground elements of drug use had reached the mainstream (although it’s interesting to note the differences between then and now) It was exciting music, with the electric guitar sounding in its element. Some of it was incredibly naive as well. No wonder the hippies and ‘Free love’ became a joke by the end of the sixties. It was such an easily lampooned scene, that by the time Sgt. Pepper came out, the real hippy crowd were probably hiding in shame.
By the time 1969 was on the way out, Rolf Harris was at no.1 singing “Two little boys”. It was like the ‘60s had never happened and the ‘50s had never ended.
The 1960s was a time that had to happen for all our sakes, it just happens to have occurred during the 6th decade of the 20th century, not that these changes were always accidental. Barriers sometimes need bringing down and conflicts often need fighting and hopefully in the long run it’s all for the better. There are casualties in every conflict, as we can see with JFK and Luther King, but pop culture is often a barometer of what progress has been made, particularly the music. By the early ’70s Gil Scott-Heron announced that ‘the revolution will not be televised’ and Marvin Gaye asked “What’s going on?”. Elsewhere David Bowie made sure any confused small town boys and girls could feel like the “prettiest star”. The beaten and oppressed are pop music’s friends; it is their clarion call.
Anyway, my rose tinted spectacles may have fallen off some time in the last ten years but I still look towards the ‘60s pop culture as generally so positive and stylish. Being young, free and single was never a more attractive option.
It’s the stuff of history now, and it’ll be interesting to know which songs on my No.1s of the ‘60s CD are still being played in another 40 odd years time. But there’s my argument. Maybe the 1960s is the decade the 20thc century will be most remembered for, more than any other. A big claim, I know, but perhaps it will be. There is often an intellectual short hand for historical dates, based on popular iconography. After all when we think of the 18th century do we not often think of France at the time of the revolution, and is the 19th century often Dickens circa 1860 or the Dark Satanic Mills of Elizabeth Gaskell? It’s just an idea. Perhaps the 20th century will be forever Carnaby Street circa 1966. It’d be a nicer image than all those wars, even if it’s not as poignant or meaningful or even completely true.
Style never goes out of fashion you see, and I think the pop ‘60s had lots of style. A lot of kitsch as well, but that can be fun. And the spirit of the early pop pioneers can be kept alive and well as it finds its way into the DNA of a future generation. Then perhaps the idea of the ‘60s is as important, because it gives some of us inspiration to keep up the good work of keeping the world more active in the face of adversity and also ensuring a future for the memories of a time that only happened once, but made the world more exciting.
We’re still living in the legacy of the ‘50s and ‘60s and good music is still being made. So are big social changes. Like a rising river held back by the weak dam of bigotry and stuffy thinking, something had to give. In some ways, it’s still happening and the spirit of the ‘60s has never completely gone away. It was just the beginning.
Keep on rockin’.