Did the 1960s Really Happen? (Part One)


Last year I read three books that challenged the mainstream view of the 1960s.

(Herewith I’m employing the folk definition of “The Sixties” as that stretch between the Kennedy assassination in November 1963 and the May 1975 fall of Saigon.)

I say “mainstream” because I haven’t entertained many illusions about what really happened during that overlong Baby Boomer idyl since I was a kid.

In the first place, I grew up “soaking in it,” in the dishwashing liquid commercial catchphrase of the era, and I hated almost every minute.

In the second, as an adult, I discerned certain disruptions in the official “peace and love” narrative.

Being a bratty pest by temperament, I’ve made a minor career out of helping debunking the myth of the selfless hippie, the noble white liberal, the enlightened radical, the powerless housewife and the era’s other stock characters.

(I’m also rather fond of rehabilitating the laughingstocks of the age.)

This year, I read three books that, to various degrees, reinforced my view that what we call The Sixties — an allegedly Edenic era that canny progressives continue to evoke when crafting 21st century policy — was a Potemkin village of the imagination, or, in the words of the narrator below, “a mass hallucination”:

Having vowed on my 50th birthday to stop reading “duty” books about religion, economics and politics, I indulged in an online shopping spree. For months, I purchased nothing but books about “old” music.

One of these was John Dogan’s short study of The Who’s The Who Sell Out, part of Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” series.

Like all the titles in that series, Dogan squeezes an astonishing amount of mouthwateringly granular content between those two tiny covers.

Unlike most of his fellow Bloomsbury authors, however, he mostly avoids tiresome academic jargon.

One exception caught my eye, however:

Part of a paper by Robert Murphy entitled “Did They Have Kitchen Sinks In Swinging London?” (available in full here.)

Dogan, an American boy during the British Invasion and subsequent “Swinging Sixties,” writes that in those days, thanks to breathless photo spreads in Time magazine and elsewhere:

The London of my imagination was the Technicolor opposite of my tiny, black and white, culturally isolated, central Massachusetts hometown.

However, he adds:

My youthful exuberance never counted for the harsh reality that London wasn’t swinging for all. “It’s very hard to swing,” British pop artist Partick Caulfield flatly stated, “when you haven’t got any money.” Time’s imprint notwithstanding, London was, and would remain until the early 1970s, “a city of bedsits and corner shops, greasy cafes and council housing estates.”

That last bit is taken from Murphy’s paper, in which he notes that by the time America’s Time discovered “Swinging London” in April 1966, the roughly 18-month-long scene was already withering across the pond.

I’d add that the surreal, escapist, fantasy sequences in British “Swinging Sixties” films like Bedazzled and Billy Liar rather speak to the fact that real life in post-war England was anything but “smashing.”

In many parts of London, homes still had outdoor privies rather than washrooms; few people owned cars; food was generally unhealthy and tasteless.

Everyday life in that city circa 1966 would have been unbearable to all but the poorest Americans.

It was basically Poland with better TV.

As Murphy notes, “many later ‘Swinging London’ films (…) have an angst-ridden, almost elegiac quality about them.”

Others, made slightly later still, are exploitative, cheesy, outright horror films which imply that all this decadent SoHo partying might get you killed, and not just of an overdose.

“There is certainly no mindless celebration of the myth in Antonioni’s Blow Up or Roeg and Cammell’s Performance,” Murphy continues, “and even those films which do affectionately embrace the concept of London as an exciting, stylish, colourful place to live – like Mike Sarne’s Joanna and Desmond Davis’s Smashing Time – wittily distance themselves from the phenomenon they set out to explore, and both films end with their heroines catching a train back to their provincial roots.”

I’ll tackle the other two books in the near future.

For now, here’s part of a fascinating essay on the brief history of on-stage “guitar destruction,” from Hendrix to Townshend:

“Blow Up,” shot in London in the summer of 1966 and premiering in New York on December 18, immediately became a cult hit, and in May 1967, it was awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes. The film tells the story of Thomas, a young photographer played by David Hemmings, who thinks he’s found clues to a murder he’s unintentionally captured in photos he’s shot in a park. The deeper he investigates, the more the question of what actually happened eludes him. Shot in the candy colors of contemporary pop culture, the film captures the mood of “Swinging London” more than any other. In one scene, Thomas walks through the alleyways of the city when his attention is attracted by an irresistible noise. He opens a door to a building to discover an audience entranced by the performance of a rock band, the Yardbirds, widely known as the talent factory of British rock. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, who would later become the lead guitarist for Led Zeppelin, all played for the Yardbirds. At the end of “Stroll On,” the bassist, for no apparent reason whatsoever, smashes his instrument. This arouses the audience all the more and they begin fighting over the pieces. But Thomas is quickest; he grabs the torso of the guitar, fights off the others and runs off with it. But it doesn’t take long for his interest in the fetish to wear off and he contemptuously tosses it away in an alley.