Cultural revolution with a great soundtrack
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.