The 1960’s

Counter-cultural revoultionary decade or surprisingly conservative vehicle for mainstream stars? Can it be two things?

The 1950’s lasted for approximately thirteen years. The 1960’s, by contrast, lasted around seven. This is the phenomenon of the Long Decade, by which the social and cultural impacts of a particular decade are measured not by strict calendar date but rather by the point at which they are superseded by in the incoming decade. Thus it can be said that the Long Fifties last until around 1963 with the arrival of the Beatles. Musically 1960, 1961 and 1962 have far more in common with the preceding decade than they do to the years that would follow. Rock and Roll had provided a seismic shift in music but ultimately it ruffled feathers rather that killing the bird. Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry burned bright, and the importance of what they did is unquestionable, but they never quite managed to erase the waves of crooners and balladeers that filled the charts.

Death and scandal – from Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly to Jerry Lee Lewis’s ill-advised marriage – derailed a lot of rock and roll’s momentum. It was a musical style that never actually overturned the old order in the 50’s but rather came to exist alongside it. Elvis could still have a huge hit in 1960 – which he did, taking the two biggest selling songs of the year – but that didn’t stop Bing Crosby or Dean Martin’s career. Tony Bennett still sold by the truckload. The arrival of the Beatles and the vast wave of bands that followed in their wake did obliterate the old older, which makes 1963 and the arrival of Please Please Me as good a place as any to declare the 50’s over but of course it’s not quite that straightforward. The end of the 50’s won’t stop Frank Sinatra having the biggest song of 1966 but as a chart mainstay the days of the 50’s dominant style are over. Other musical styles started to come forward as well – blues and country, soul and Motown, and the emerging folk movement led by Dylan in America – which, by the time 1963 rolls around, were all starting to make their presence felt in the charts. Please Please Me is a convenient point to read the 50’s their funeral rites but it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the Liverpudlian four-piece that actually committed the murder. Others had a hand in it too. The ending of the Long Fifties was coming from a number of different directions and it took three years for them to actually die.

By contrast, the Long Sixties basically don’t exist. Muscially, the 1960’s crashed to a close pretty much right at the end of the decade. You can take any number of events which might act as the end of “the 60’s” but Altamont is as appropriate a place as any. A concert, given freely in what was supposed to be a spirit of generosity, destroyed by ignorance, stupidity, drugs, violence and which ended in the deaths of four people. As a metaphor for the end of the hippie dream and the decade it’s pretty apposite. But then there are so many. The Beatles technically broke up in 1970 but if we used that event it would only extend the Long Sixties by a few months, though as the band that embodies the 60’s more than any other, their final, fractious end does stand as another tombstone for the decade.

And what of the other big bands of the 60’s? The Stones started a creative renaissance right at the end of the decade with Let It Bleed, but Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street don’t quite sound like the same band that recorded Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, and the firing and subsequent death of Brian Jones (another signifier) ended the original line-up. The Kinks start off strong with Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround but commercial success would elude them pretty much from 1970 onwards. The Beach Boys were in an irrecoverable creative nosedive. Diana Ross left the Supremes in 1969. Jimi Hendrix died in 1970. Dylan intentionally imploded his career with 1970’s Self Portrait. Some artists would rise from the ashes but culturally the seven years we think of as “the 60’s” remain remarkably self-contained for the supposed impact they had. The biggest selling single of 1969 was The Beatles “Get Back”. The biggest selling single of 1970 was Mungo Jerry’s jug-band drink-a-long “In The Summertime”. Psychedelia drifted off into prog. Blues morphed into hard rock and heavy metal. Folk became a by-word for twee self-indulgent delusion. The mythology of the 60’s couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of the decade.

But then, the 60’s were busy self-mythologizing even when they were in full swing. “Swing” being exactly the word of course because the “swinging Sixties” was how the decade referred to itself, a bit like that annoying person at work who insists you call them by the nickname they’ve chosen to give themselves. But did the Sixties really “swing” anyway? I mean, they probably did if you hung out at the Bag O’Nails club with Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix. Or maybe if you lived within a magic triangle stretching from the King’s Road to Carnaby Street to Abbey Road in London, or somewhere around Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. But beyond that? It would be interesting to know how “swinging” Scunthorpe was. Or Minneapolis.

So much of the imagery and impressions of the decade were just excuses to make money, and the mythologizing of the Sixties completely plays into that. The Mini might be an iconic car and an enduring symbol of Sixties Britain but British Leyland didn’t manufacture it in order to hasten in a decade of free love and LSD (frankly they might have built better cars if they had). You can make the same assumption about Volkswagen and the camper van – a sale is a sale whether you’re bedecking it in beads and flowers to go to a love-in or taking it on a nice Sunday drive to the local market town. The miniskirt was an instrument of liberation for women as much as the pill but that didn’t stop fashion and pharmaceutical companies making a killing from them. Mary Quant’s fashions dominate what we think of as Sixties London but good luck finding or affording that if you live outside the M25.  

Counter-culture opened up a new space for the people who always made money to make more money. There’s a reason one of the dominant narratives of Sixties bands is “getting badly ripped off by the manager”, and the discovery that teenagers had spending power hastened in a whole new era of cheap tat for moneymen to get rich off of. Money is money, whether you’re selling the conformity of a host of terrible Mersey Beat bands in 1964 or trying to convince the world to buy into your image of peace and love in 1968. The money boys get paid either way (and they were almost always boys). That’s not to suggest that attempts to shift what was going on in culture were empty or worthless, nor that there weren’t good intentions behind them. But the sheer scale and implacability of the Establishment was vastly underestimated or at the very least misunderstood, even by those at the top of the new cultural force.

Apple, the Beatles catastrophically disastrous attempt to create a company based on artistic value rather than financial necessity was absolutely motivated by the desire to help people. It failed so badly that it became a significant contributing factor in the band’s demise but the motive behind it was still genuinely altruistic. It just wasn’t run by anyone who had the slightest idea how to translate high-minded concepts of artistic liberation in to anything like a workable model. Nor did they have any idea of the kind of resistance they might meet, from scammers determined to soak the company for all its worth to something as simple as them not being able to put up a mural on the Apple Boutique because of complaints from people who actually lived and worked in the area. Were Lennon and McCartney naïve in their approach? Undoubtedly, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a go. Despite that, it still failed and everyone, including the four Beatles, ended up having to go back to traditional record labels.

Still, it would be ludicrous to suggest that nothing changed in the 60’s because obviously it did, both for music and broader society. Though even then it’s important to keep things in perspective. There was massive innovation and change in the music scene, that’s beyond doubt, but as we’ve previously discussed the charts are a measure only of what’s popular not what’s artistically worthwhile. And when we look at what actually sold there’s a noticeable absence of kaftans, drugs and politics.

The Beatles had the two biggest selling singles of the decade in the UK with “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – no surprise there – but the third biggest was Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd with the soppy none-more-50’s ballad “Tears”. Normally I’d say “go away and have a listen” but God you really shouldn’t. It’s abysmal, like the bastard love-child of Johnny Mathis and Jimmy Tarbuck set to strings so syrupy Canada could adopt them as a national symbol should there be a sudden shortage of maple trees. The 60’s might have ended the dominant style of the 50’s but that doesn’t mean it was a clean break.

In fact, in the UK if we strip out the Beatles from the equation, the top-selling singles artists are Ken Dodd, The Seekers, Our Friend Engelbert, Elvis, Tom Jones, Acker Bilk (!), Frank Ifield and Cliff Richard (!!). It’s not exactly a list made for the radical reinvention of a dominant art-form is it? The music of the 60’s might have changed everything from one angle, but from another the top of the charts aren’t reflecting psychedelic glory, political and social awareness or bucolic folk music. Claim Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is the best song ever recorded all you like, Rolf Harris still had the 19th biggest selling single with the now-deeply-unfortunate “Two Little Boys”. The Stones don’t put in an appearance until you get to the 36th best-selling single (“The Last Time”, surprisingly, not “Satisfaction” which scrapes in at 43). The Kinks, one of the Great British Singles Bands of all time, don’t crack the top 50. Neither do The Who. There’s no soul or Motown whatsoever, so no Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Supremes… nothing. Of course, that does require stripping out The Beatles, and clearly they do represent a fundamental shift (the biggest-selling album, worldwide, was Sgt Pepper, it will come as no surprise to discover) but it’s striking just how conservative the other top-sellers are without their presence. Once again we see there is no causal link between what is popular and what might actually be regarded as good or significant.

The enduring clichés of the 60’s remain, and always will remain, the lens through which that decade is viewed. Screaming girls at JFK welcoming the Beatles. Stoned hippies at Woodstock. Flowers and kaftans and bells. Joints big enough to be used as industrial chimneys. You know the sort of thing. But the disconnect between the image and the reality highlights how the mythologizing of history can overwrite the reality of it, obfuscating the truth. Most places didn’t swing. Most of the big sellers were very traditional. We’ll see more of this as we plunge into the 70’s and embrace newly emergent forms of music, from disco* and punk to glam and funk, and what kind of lasting legacy they will leave. We’ll start that next time but here, at the end of the 60’s, it really is the end of the 60’s. There will be no Long Sixties to discuss, just a backwards glance at a decade which, while undoubtedly shaking up the order of things, still never managed to get beyond itself.

And a cultural legacy that will be forever trapped the amber of seven – not ten – years. 

*Yes! Me writing about disco!

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