If you can remember the sixties you can’t have been there; so goes the hackneyed aphorism, reinforcing the notion of a libertarian decade during which ‘normality’ was somehow suspended while a euphoric blur of free love, good acid and countercultural revolution played out. Of course, the sixties also meant the darkness of Vietnam, the Manson murders and the sorry stain of Altamont. So why do we insist on preserving the ‘flower power’ sixties in peace’n’protest aspic and conveniently overlook its malevolent side? The sixties was the first decade to be created under the glare of the media spotlight – mythologised in its own time and endlessly recycled ever since. How can you hate it when you want to love it, protests Jamie Holman.
Roll up, roll up — step this way, buy a family ticket for the theme park sixties and ride the rollercoaster from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ right through to the grim final loop where Meredith Hunter lies dying in a pool of blood at a Californian concert race track, killed by Hells Angels while a bunch of middle class pricks in makeup try to invoke Satan in cockney/uncle Tom accents. That was the Altamont Festival of December 1969, the point, so the era’s ‘revolutionaries’ always maintain, where the sixties evaporated. The bad vibes arrive here, goes the hippie gibber. The sixties end at Altamont on the Tuesday. The seventies start on Wednesday. Goodbye protest, hello cocaine!
Welcome to the fake decade. Sit back and relax, while everyone over fifty goes on and on about how great it was and how tame things are now in comparison. Gasp as some minor, greying songwriter explains how “they did it first.” Swoon at the arrogance of nostalgia. Marvel at how every ageing parent in the land claims to have seen The Beatles before they were big. Be amazed at how middle class and cozy it has all become in retrospect – a sitcom Saturday night version of white kids with flowers in their hair and revolution in the air (while black kids burned just for existing.) In order to fully enjoy our attractions, keep your hands inside the car, try not to inhale and never ever ask yourself why one decade in particular straddles and strangles all that followed while blithely dismissing all that went before. Beatles wigs to my left, oversized joints to my right, tie-dye t-shirts straight ahead. And yes, we do take credit cards.
Have you seen that washing powder advert where the kid comes back from the music festival covered in mud? Instead of being shocked, his mum doesn’t even look up; she just smiles and says, “In my day we didn’t bother with clothes.” But of course, his mum wasn’t there. And I bet you a tenner yours wasn’t either. But in the forty years since the summer of ’68, they all stake their claim, willing participants of a mass delusion where the cogs of time have stuck fast.
We’ve had forty years of ‘best decade ever’ television shows, compilation box sets, self-congratulatory arts programmes, books, biographies and anniversaries, spouting the same old shit about how these kids woke up and changed everything. How the sex was great, the music “fab” and the drugs out of this world (curiously, stronger yet safer than today’s stimulants, if you believe every halfwit hippy TV talking head) and how they stuck it to the man like no other generation before or since.
And for me, this is where the problem starts. The sixties kids didn’t invent protest as so many commentators would have us believe. This country has a long and proud history of vocal, political opposition. From the Jarrow hunger marches of the ’30s right back to the Diggers and Levellers of the seventeenth century and up through the Suffragetes, two world wars’ worth of conscientious objectors and all those faceless dissenters whose mark was made on history. All of them too a grassroots stand against injustice; they just did’t have The Doors as as soundtrack. Of course, it would be ridiculous to deny the palpable changes that swept this country after the 1964 general election (abortion legalised, the death penalty abolished, homosexuality decriminalised and so on), not to mention the rise of CND here, the civil rights movement in the USA a burgeoning global condemnation of the war in Vietnam. Girls were no longer destined for a future defined by subservient domesticity; the ’60s carried on what was hinted at in the ’20s but this time round the media was in full force ‘documenting history’ in real time rather than after the event. Magazines like Honey and Petticoat arrived, with features about ‘pre-marital sex, flat-sharing and careers’. Then there was the underground scene – a samizdat counterculture publishing revolution thrust subversive libertarianism in the face of the establishment with organs like International Times and Oz becoming causes célèbres. Ready Steady Go and Top Of The Pops brought the pop revolution into millions of sitting rooms and, let’s face it, the music was pretty special.
But that’s the core, these things were the seeds that were planted and that’s not what stings; it’s the appropriation and ownership by every bloated pop star in tax exile and every other deluded new pensioner in the land which offends – particularly their insistence that the sixties offered true cultural revolution and that everyone that came after them ruined it because they/we just weren’t as good as them.
I don’t blame them for believing in it all at the time and I don’t dispute what they achieved. I am still moved by the sixties and was once obsessed and inspired by it. When I was younger I wanted to be one of those sixties evangelists and they in turn wanted me to be one of them. They smiled a my hair grew long and even as I tried to be subversive and dangerous, they had an answer for everything. I cursed my own generation for not having the muscle, the vision or the originality that they had. I listened to them and agreed that everything good had been done, everything worth saying had been said. They had the best haircuts, shoes and clothes. I spent most of my teenage days wondering where to get a Fugs vinyl LP and obsessively collected the books, clothes, records and pop ephemera of the time. But however alluring as retro icons, the actions and artefacts of the day were never really meant to sustain. That much is revealed in the era’s slogans and lyrics. “Never trust anyone over 25”, is just great until you’re 26. “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out!” was fine for Timothy Leary’s addled followers, but surely they’ve all dropped back in again by now. There are the boarding school fees and the shareholders to consider. “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” is fine til they’re your kinds, eh, My Dylan?
Leaders are easy to follow until they change direction and Bob Dylan certainly led the way for much of the mid-sixties, straddling the ‘golden era’ of musical protest, a great, albeit unwilling ‘voice of a generation’. He was genuinely ‘the people’s poet’, epitomising a serious, informed and active generation who really cared, maaaaan. That is, until he turned on his own people and started writing barbed, personal protest songs about them (1965’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ is a scathing attack on the New York Folk scene, for example) and embraced his beloved rock’n’roll in all its electric, amphetamine glory, breaking the hearts of Pete Seeger and folk’s old guard in the process.
Similarly, John Lennon made alternative London gasp when the Beatles released the single ‘Revolution’ in the summer of 1968 in the wake of Les Evénements on the streets of Paris and seemingly in response to Mick Jagger’s similarly inspired ‘Street Fighting Man’ (Lennon noting that when it came to matters of destruction you could, “…count me out“).
Jagger published his handwritten lyrics in Black Dwarf, an underground newspaper. He was happy to be perceived as leading the charge from the barricades; while Lennon was attacked in an open letter to which he viciously responded, attacking the naivety of both the establishment and the Left. “Tell me of one successful revolutions,” he asked. “Who fucked up communism, Christianity, capitalism, Buddhism etc? Sick heads and nothing else.” This was Lennon the humanist as opposed to Jagger the narcissist, who now declared himself “against private property,” turning up at marches and playing the revolutionary. That is until December 9th 1969 and Altamont, where Jagger decided to hire a local Hells Angels chapter as bodyguards for the Stones. The Hells Angels were violent, uncontrollable and eventually captured on film as they beat Meredith Hunter, and eventually stabbed him to death, after he pulled a gun. No more “devil’s own” posturing from Jagger; no more groovy revolution talk. And the idea of Mick Jagger being against personal property is beyond laughable! No one mentions these clunking ironies on Channel 5’s ‘Sixties Night’ do they?
Its not the sixties I despise at all, but the nostalgia industry that surrounds it. It’s the Beatles conventions and investment bankers collecting Warhol which make me sick; it’s every busking hippy who goes on about Dylan and only knows ‘The Times They Are A Changin”. It’s those pub quiz jukebox bores who love the Kinks but don’t know The Village Green Preservation Society. And it’s the glossy rock monthlies who keep putting sixties geriatrics on their covers instead of The Fence Collective, and every fashion editor who uses the phrase “sixties chic” to sell more Topshop tat.
There is still so much to love about this decade but it’s cheapened by the cosy version of history which gets so endlessly recycled. I guess I’m not alone in being conflicted: drawn like a moth to the flames of ’68, repelled by the dewy-eyed nostalgia in which those insurrectionist times now seem couched. Loving The Beatles, but suspecting that they accidentally ruined pop music by setting the blueprint in stone (as I write this, Oasis are on the news because they have split up. The newsreader has just claimed that Oasis were influenced by The Beatles. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yawn.) I am constantly thrilled by the MC5, yet sickened by their ‘White Panther’ poet activist confrere John Sinclair piping up about “Guns Dope and Fucking in the streets”. Hmmmm. Nice work if you can get it. Not quite what the Black Panthers had in mind though, is it? His ramblings are, in fact, those of a stoned idiot. Juvenile, naive and the kind of talk that got Meredith Hunter killed. Revolutionaries? Nah, just a fucking great band. And that should be enough, really. But for the glossies, the fashion industry, crap TV and the latest ’60s ‘Best Of’ CD it clearly isn’t. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who’s picked up on the episode of Friends where Jennifer Aniston swans about in an MC5 T-shirt. Weep.
OK, I’ll come clean. For me, Dylan can do no wrong. I also own a framed original flyer that advertised the gig where the MC5’s ‘Kick out the Jams’ was recorded. I am obsessed with Nuggets-style, early ’60s garage bands like the Sonics and have just today ordered The Immediate singles box set from Amazon (true!) Brian Jones is my computer monitor screensaver.
But I stand by the contradiction.
The sixties were shit. Your mum and dad WERE there. . .