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1966 and all that

A new book by Jon Savage offers a personal history of the year that changed youth culture

Michael Watts | November 17th 2015

Jon Savage, the author of “1966”, a vast new book about a pivotal year in the lives of young Britons and Americans, has been obsessing about pop music since, well, 1966. He was 13 then, and called Jonathan Sage, a solitary boy who would sit in his west London bedroom, transported by the sounds of the pirate station Radio Caroline and reading music magazines. What for most other kids was a passing juvenile fancy became for him an education, one that has proven more fruitful even than his time at Cambridge. The record collection which met with such parental disapproval has since fuelled an idiosyncratic career as our foremost historian of youth culture.

“England’s Dreaming”, his definitive account of the societal convulsions caused by punk rock and the Sex Pistols in the Seventies, was followed by “Teenage”, a much-praised history of adolescence and its conflicts with the “adult” world, from Victorian times to 1945. Now he’s turned to the decade whose great social innovations polarised opinion like no other. To the rebarbative Tory politician, Norman Tebbit, the Sixties were “that third-rate decade”. When the founder of OZ magazine, Richard Neville, published “Play Power”, his impish Sixties manifesto, one fearful reviewer denounced it as the “‘Mein Kampf’ of an international conspiracy to overthrow the Anglo-Saxon way of life”. In “The Neophiliacs”, the Private Eye satirist Christopher Booker painted the Sixties as a delusional fantasy that inexplicably overwhelmed the country. 

For Savage, this hostility was the result of “experimental, forward-looking youth culture coming up against hard reality, both economic and political”. Advocates of LSD and “free love”, and of civil, gay and women’s rights pushed their cause; governments, police and Establishment figures (including right-wing journalists) pushed back. But Savage doesn’t try to go mano a mano with measured, political commentaries on the period, like Dominic Sandbrook’s “White Heat” or Bernard Levin’s “The Pendulum Years”. His purpose is semi-autobiographical: to investigate the events of a year that helped make him who he is, and also to convey what a thrill it was to be young and alive in 1966. He’s now 62, but a big part of him still seems to be 13, listening to fun stuff in his bedroom.

“Everybody thinks the Sixties has been totally done, or that it was just like Austin Powers,” he says. “It’s my job to prove them wrong.” His method is to view 1966 largely through the prism of pop singles, famous and obscure, and show how they reflected trends and helped shape changes in the British and American psyches. The book contains 12 chapters, one for each month, and they show how three-minute pop singles could function like tabloid reports of changing young lives, so quickly were they recorded and released. 

The record sleeve for Barry Sadler’s patriotic chart hit from 1966

In his view, the Vietnam war was fought not just on the battlefields of South-East Asia but between patriotic chart hits like Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (pictured) and angry protest songs like the Monitors’ “Greetings (This is Uncle Sam)”, about the African-American experience of war, or “Vietnam”, by a disillusioned white draftee named Bobby Jameson. The rise of black power in America went hand-in-hand with the commercial success of the Stax, Atlantic and Motown labels. Records by Stevie Wonder (his version of “Blowin’ In The Wind”), James Brown (“Don’t Be a Drop Out”) and the Four Tops (“Reach Out I’ll Be There”) were important in raising black consciousness. Savage argues convincingly that Tom Jones’s sentimental hit, “The Green, Green Grass of Home”, originally a Jerry Lee Lewis country song, was swept to the top of the charts by public emotion in Britain over the Aberfan disaster of October 1966, when a Welsh school was engulfed by a landslide. “That was the end of the Swinging Sixties,” Savage asserts. “Aberfan cast such a pall over this country.”

This was also a year of confusion and conflicting trends. The charts had not yet been taken over by “the young” and young groups were only just coming to terms with the idea that they could have a career making pop music. The music industry then was far from hip: the all-important weekly charts, for example, were as full of novelty songs and records for mums and dads (Ken Dodd, Jim Reeves) as the psychedelia targeting their teenage children. Music was looking both back and forward, a situation that was largely resolved in 1967 with the release of the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and “the summer of love”. From then on, pop might be called Art. 

Much of Savage’s written source material comes from unpretentious reporters on long-gone British publications like Rave, Disc and Record Mirror, who were attuned to the tastes of ordinary provincial fans. By the end of 1966, this audience begins to feel left behind, as “the serpent of self-consciousness enters the paradise of pop”. The single is giving way to the album. Musicians once content with songs of love and loss are now thinking deep thoughts. The new buzzwords are “Rock”, “Underground” and “Band” (not “Group”). Dylan has gone electric, the Stones (pictured, top) are cultivating sexual ambivalence, and the Beatles, desperate to crack their clean image, have been photographed for their next (aborted) album cover holding hunks of bloody meat. The Velvet Underground, of course, are already singing about heroin. 

Despite all the nay-sayers, nostalgia for the Sixties seems inexhaustible. A 50-song, two-CD collection of songs mentioned in the book is being released, and a BBC “Arena” documentary is underway, possibly as part of an evening’s viewing dedicated to 1966. Savage acknowledges that those who buy the book will be well-off “rock dads”. This affluent demographic is the reason why so many groups of the Sixties and Seventies have dusted themselves off and returned to performing, ignoring the famous Randy Newman song, “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”. In one way he’s glad. “I notice that they have a stronger relationship with their children than I did with my father.” But the young, he suggests, always prevail in the end.

1966: The Year the Decade Exploded is published by Faber on November 19th

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