Cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion with a great sound­track

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

I think it was Ge­orge Har­ri­son who said if you can re­mem­ber the 1960s you weren’t re­ally there. Un­for­tu­nately, I wasn’t even born, which is prob­a­bly why I can re­mem­ber the whole damn thing.

The epochal al­bums and con­cert per­for­mances, the scream­ing girls, the in­cen­di­ary trousers and es­tab­lish­ment-quak­ing hair­cuts, the freak­outs and love-ins, the rad­i­cal­ism, the mys­ti­cism, the drugs, the busts, the protests, the ri­ots, the as­sas­si­na­tions — th­ese have been handed down as a mono­lithic cul­tural legacy. The 60s have passed into lore as the mo­ment when a drab post­war world flicked the switch from blackand-white to colour: an un­prece­dented out­burst of cre­ativ­ity, ide­al­ism and lib­er­at­ing he­do­nism that led to gen­er­a­tional con­flict, political tur­moil and so­cial trans­for­ma­tion on a grand scale.

Of course, it has been ap­par­ent for some time that Mick Jag­ger is about as sub­ver­sive as Bar­bara Cart­land. Tak­ing the long view, one can­not fail to no­tice that the vaunted cul­tural revol- ution did not lead to a new and bet­ter world based on the prin­ci­ples of peace, love and equal­ity but prompted decades of re­ac­tion, re­sult­ing in the grotesquely skewed plu­toc­racy we all now en­joy.

As such, it is tempt­ing to kick against the idea that the 60s were spe­cial or revo­lu­tion­ary, to see the era’s lin­ger­ing aura as a shroud­ing fog of nos­tal­gia, to dis­miss its chal­lenge to the es­tab­lished or­der as lit­tle more than an in­ef­fec­tual bout of or­gias­tic rev­elry that just hap­pened to break out when the mem­bers of a cer­tain post­war gen­er­a­tion hit pu­berty si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

But as English writer Jon Sav­age demon­strates in his ex­cel­lent book 1966: The Year the Decade Ex­ploded, there was some­thing uniquely po­tent and volatile about the con­ver­gence of forces at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. Sav­age is a ven­er­a­ble cul­tural his­to­rian and pop mu­sic critic whose books in­clude Eng­land’s Dream­ing: The Sex Pis­tols and Punk Rock — by com­mon con­sent the best ac­count of the late-70s Bri­tish punk scene — and Teenage: The Cre­ation of Youth Cul­ture, 1875-1945. In 1966, he turns his at­ten­tion to the mu­sic, art and fash­ion of that piv- otal year in or­der to ex­am­ine the dra­matic shift in sen­si­bil­ity that was un­der way.

Sav­age’s claim for the sig­nif­i­cance of 1966 (as it hap­pens, the year he be­came a teenager) is not that it rep­re­sents the acme of pop mu­sic great­ness — al­though a year that gave us Re­volver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds, among other ground­break­ing re­leases, prob­a­bly has as good a claim as any to that em­i­nently con­testable ti­tle. His ar­gu­ment is, rather, that it was the point at which the com­bi­na­tion of de­mo­graph­ics, bur­geon­ing con­sumerism and the dis­sem­i­nat­ing power of mass me­dia, which con­spired to make youth cul­ture the driver of so­cial change through­out the 60s, reached crit­i­cal mass.

As a re­sult, 1966 can be seen as the point at which the new cul­ture that was busy be­ing born ac­quired ir­re­sistible political im­pli­ca­tions, but also as the mo­ment when the counter-rev­o­lu­tion be­gan to push back in earnest. Among the many sig­nif­i­cant events of that year, Sav­age notes, was the elec­tion of Ron­ald Rea­gan as gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia on a plat­form of crack­ing down on stu­dent rad­i­cals.

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