There’s a myth in the nostalgia industry that paints each decade in different colours. Reality is rather more blended. The 1960s witnessed great change, socially and culturally: by the middle of the decade, four-fifths of UK homes had a television, and they had shows like Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops to watch. It was even OK now to borrow your servant’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But just as the world didn’t suddenly become neon-lit and full of yuppies and shoulder pads the moment the last chimes of 1979 were heard, neither did London become a swinging flash mob twenty years earlier. And no, everybody was not too busy discovering sex…
Take the first number one album of the 1960s, The Explosive! Freddy Cannon, by Freddy Cannon. It was the first time in the UK that an album by (that 1950s creation) a rock ‘n roll singer had topped the charts. “The greatest decade in the history of mankind” had begun with what now seems a throwback, its style and joyful abandon utterly modern in its day, but now closer in tone to the music hall era, where some of its tracks had originated, than any present day rockism.
Some time passed, roughly ten years in fact, before the decade closed, appropriately given their cultural dominance of the day, with The Beatles atop the charts. Although Abbey Road wasn’t the final Beatles studio album to be released, it did mark the last time the four were all fab and recording together. Earlier that year they’d made their famous rooftop appearance, the band’s last public performance.
And when the decade was over, The Beatles had scored 10 of its 13 biggest selling albums. No other artist got close: only the soundtracks to The Sound of Music, South Pacific and West Side Story outsold any albums by The Beatles in the 1960s. It’s no wonder people have long agreed that we’ll never see the like of it again.
Which is absolutely fine by me.
Whether it’s Monopoly or 50 Shades of Grey, I can’t stand a runaway leader. It’s just not possible for that one thing to be so outstandingly brilliant in its field that it naturally and rightfully kicks all competition to the kerb. Magnified through the rose-tinted spy-glass of time, you end up with a cultural landscape that appears blandly homogenous. Take 1966, the year London did finally swinging, the year a World Cup victory was achieved. In 1966, a total of four albums topped the chart. Four! They were: The Soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones, and Rubber Soul and Revolver by The Beatles. And you thought 1991 was a tiresome struggle, with Bryan Adams taking up most of the summer and autumn on top of the singles chart, and Simply Red on their way to having the best selling album two years in a row with Stars. 1967 wasn’t much better – you had The Monkees (two albums), The Sound of Music (again), Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (for half the year), and Mr Val Doonican (Val Doonican Rocks, but Gently).
So, not a lot of variety, and a runaway leader.
The other thing I can’t stand is being told what to like, and there’s an awful lot of that about when it comes to the ’60s. Eat your greens, learn your musical history, respect the icons, it’s all derivative, that modern music, it’s all been done before you know, and better. What do you mean you don’t like The Velvet Undergound? And what’s that enormous elephant doing in here?
Ah, yes. I was coming to that.
You see, I own Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course I do: it’s a statistical inevitability given the size of my album collection. I also have a copy of Rubber Soul, although I’ve listened to it maybe twice. And yes, Revolver is in there, too. And I love it.
After I got into the madchester scene and baggy indie in the early 90s I found She Said She Said on Revolver, and my mind was, to use the modern parlance, a little bit blown. it seemed to so perfectly encapsulate the sound I loved, with its percussion bouncing all over the place, the constant presence of that lead guitar melody, and lyrics you could drop seamlessly into any number of indie-pop hits.
And then Revolver goes and closes with Tomorrow Never Knows, and Freddy Cannon, kicked to the kerb, lies in the gutter looking up at the stars, wondering which gave birth to the new sound. They appear to be dancing, laughing, but it could just be the LSD talking. And while I’m feeling confessional, The Blue Album and The Red Album (I much preferred the latter) were among the tapes in my Dad’s collection that I most frequently played. Nothing quite matched a Buddy Holly compilation, I found, but since tragedy took him in February 1959 he’s not a part of this story other than for us to wonder what might have been, what his incredible talent could have stretched to, and how pop music could have been his to shape for years to come.
But apart from The Beatles, what have the 1960s ever done for me?
My confused feelings about the 1960s are best summed up by a compilation album I bought, probably in about 1990 or 1991, seduced no doubt by the budget price. Top Ten Hits of the 60s was a 1988 album released on the Music For Pleasure label. It contains 16 hits of the decade, by artists ranging from The Animals (House of the Rising Sun), The Hollies (Look Through Any Window), The Beach Boys (Do It Again) to the hippy sounds of The Flower Pot Men (Let’s Go To San Francisco), and not one but two appearances each by Cliff Richard and The Shadows – together on In The Country, and separately with The Twelfth of Never and FBI.
Yes, that’s two Cliff Richard appearances. Whether or not he appears on either of the Now! compilations I own that puts him, in terms of number of tracks I’ve bought, ahead of The Velvet Underground and The Who. Until last year it would have put him ahead of Marvin Gaye.
For no discernible reason of continuity The Temperence Seven’s 1961 number four hit Pasadena is also included. A nine-piece who based their sound around old-time jazz, they rose during the trad-jazz revival and were sunk along with so many others by the Beatles behemoth.
So, apart from misjudged cheapo compilation purchases and Revolver, what have the 1960s ever done for me?
Well, there’s this, for starters:
If you don’t know The Box Tops, and despite the huge success of The Letter in 1967 it’s possible you don’t, the kid out front is Alex Chilton, later to become lead singer of Big Star, a band second in influence only to The Velvet Underground, and who I found through listening to Teenage Fanclub and from seeing their name referenced by the likes of Michael Stipe.”
And then there’s some of my favourite albums – albums I’ve been listening to since I started exploring beyond the scattergun and feeble offerings of Top Ten Hits of the 60s, like Astral Weeks (1968) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Songs that never seem to grow old, like Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell, 1968), She’s Not There (The Zombies, 1965), San Francisco (Scott McKenzie, 1967), Castles in the Sand (Jimi Hendrix, 1968) and California Soul (Marlena Shaw, 1969).”
There are artists that have grown old, but whose music from the 60s can still electrify, like the hard not to love Neil Young, whose ’60s output alone puts many to shame: from Buffalo Springfield…
……to his solo / crazy horse releases
There’s Simon & Garfunkel, who provided in The Graduate (1967) one of the finest movie soundtracks of all time, and whose 1968 song America evokes the spirit of frustrated freedom as well as any. I was thrilled in 2003 to see them live, their differences reconciled for long enough to charm audiences once again. They even brought out The Everly Brothers for a mid-set performance, so that was two legendary duos from the 60s in one night.
And there’s Nick Drake, about whom I could write another thousand words (it’s ok, I won’t) without blinking or pausing, and whose debut album Five Leaves Left was released in the Summer / Autumn of 1969. I was handed a copy of Drake’s third and final album Pink Moon (1972) by a friend at school one day. He wasn’t a friend I can ever remember talking about music with, he just handed me this CD with the words “I think you’ll like this”. He was right, but I don’t think he could have anticipated the extent of the obsession he was helping to create.”
It still feels like a select shortlist, but every time I think about it, I think of ways to lengthen it. And this is really only a snapshot of a decade based on the parts that I’ve fallen in love with at one time or another. And it’s not just strictly limited to music. As well as The Graduate, there’s the emergence of James Bond on screen through the decade, and Lindsay Anderson’s “If….”, a tale of anarchic rebellion set in a public school. This in turn led me to the fascinating Missa Luba, the Sanctus from which features prominently in the film.
I’d always had this feeling that the 1970s had more influence on my musical soul, but I’m less certain of this now. True, the influence on my ’90s and future indie tastes seemed to flow more from that decade: Big Star were active in the 1970s; it was arguably Neil Young’s greatest decade; ’60s David Bowie had little impact compared to his later output. And yet, there are moments when the 1960s creeps in. There are nods to it in a lot of jangly indie-pop and Britpop, and even instances of overt mimicry: compare You Don’t Understand by The House of Love (1992) with I’m a Man by The Spencer Davis Group (1967) or In The Country (1966) with Wrapped up in Books from Belle & Sebastian’s 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Krautrock, which has inspired wave after wave of new music, was a 70s innovation, but one with some links back to the 60s: like Bowie and Young, Can released their first album before the decade was out. Stevie Wonder, whose Songs in the Key of Life has been a favourite of mine since being turned on to it by Giles Smith, had already had nine Top 40 hits in the UK by the end of the 60s. Those hits include Uptight (Everything’s Alright), a Motown classic that still sounds dazzling and fresh 50 years on. You can make the same claim for many of the classic Northern Soul sounds that I adore.
So what HAVE the 60s ever done for me? Apart from give me one of my favourite films, one of my favourite soundtracks, one of my favourite artists, a great part of my musical education growing up, and starts for other artists who would go on to influence the music I listen to for decades to come, that is?
Well, nothing, really.
Note: This piece was originally written for and appeared on Music vs. The World, in April 2015.