Everything you always wanted to know about Sixties pop —and more

LSD, Vietnam, civil rights and the Cold War are all linked to pop music in Jon Savage’s solemn tome about the explosive decade

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

1966: The Year the Decade Exploded Jon Savage

Faber, pp.672, £20, ISBN: 9780571277629

It might seem an odd choice, but after reading Jon Savage’s new book, I think if I had a time machine I’d now be tempted to set its controls for 13 January 1966 and the annual dinner of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. Andy Warhol had been booked to give a speech, but instead he put on a gig by the Velvet Underground and Nico at full uncompromising blast, with a couple of Factory favourites dancing alongside them. One shrink described the evening as a ‘torture of cacophony’; another — no less disapprovingly — as an ‘eruption of the id’. A third left hurriedly, with the explanation that ‘I’m ready to vomit.’

This clash between the old and the new, the squares and the hipsters, is, not surprisingly, a central theme of Savage’s latest lengthy rumination on pop music and its social significance — but it’s by no means the only one. ‘Pop was everything in 1966,’ he writes early in the first chapter; and, as it turns out, everything is pretty much what he attempts to cover in the pages that follow.

Of course, even in a book of this size, covering everything poses certain organisational problems, not all of which Savage solves. The plan, as laid out in the introduction, is for each chapter to pick a significant (and often impressively obscure) single for each month of 1966 and use it to explore one of that month’s wider social issues — at least until part two, from September onwards, when the scene apparently became too fragmented for that to be possible.

In the January chapter, Savage’s choice falls on ‘The Quiet Explosion’, the B-side to ‘A Good Idea’ by the Birmingham band the Ugly’s (chart position: unplaced), whose Cold-War lyrics indirectly lead him to the ringing declaration that ‘the pace of life quickened in the mid-Sixties and the fear of nuclear annihilation was the rocket fuel’ — one of many moments in the book where a Wikipedia editor might have added a stern ‘citation needed’. He then ponders youth angst with the aid of the rather better-known ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, before moving on to such things as civil rights, Vietnam, LSD and the convulsed state of 1960s America.

The trouble, needless to say, is that these themes are not so much overlapping as wholly intertwined — and with Savage never sure how much to disentangle them, the chapters gradually collapse into something of a chronological and thematic jumble.

A clearer distinction, maybe because it’s a slightly artificial one, is between the book’s two parts. The way Savage tells it, from January to August 1966 pop music hurtled unstoppably along, developing at a never-to-be-repeated rate, and bringing the avant-garde and the mass-market closer together than they’d ever been. But then in September came the big crash. This was caused partly by the fact that the whole thing simply accelerated out of control — but also by the disappearance of the ‘centrifugal force’ of the Beatles, who following their beleaguered world tour in the summer had retired to lick their wounds. (One strange side effect of this disappearing-Beatles theory is that Savage pays very little attention to Revolver, surely the year’s greatest pop achievement.)

As a result, the music fragmented into its component elements: cheery mindless pop; serious, usually political rock, soon to be known as ‘underground’; black American dance music; old-school showbiz for the mums and dads; and the kind of garage music that American bands had been making in the early Sixties before being interrupted by those pesky mop-tops.

By the end of the year, too, the squares were fighting back, with Ronald Reagan elected governor of California and the Wilson government’s wage freeze marking ‘the end of the British high Sixties’. Meanwhile, the Aberfan disaster and the TV drama Cathy Come Home had provided jolting reminders that not all of Britain was swinging — or ever had been — and as Christmas approached, the top three singles were by Tom Jones, Val Doonican and the Seekers.

Throughout the book, Savage never wanders very far from his long-standing place on the more chin-stroking end of the music-writing spectrum. (At one point, he admiringly refers to Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ as ‘a complex text’.) Fortunately, his earnestness never prevents him from capturing the excitement of the music or the speed, by turns thrilling and alarming, of the social change. Reading the book often has the arresting effect of making us realise what it must have felt like to hear these songs for the first time.

And yet, nearly 50 years later, it’s perhaps also time for a cooler eye to be brought to bear on the era. On the whole, though, Savage takes the radicals, mystics and champions of LSD entirely on their own terms (i.e. very seriously indeed), not even cracking a smile when an offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troupe holds ‘a parade to celebrate the death of money’ — or when one British music journalist solemnly calls for ‘the total overthrow of everything’.

Admittedly, it’s never easy to combine unbounded and mostly justified enthusiasm with scepticism — or due reverence with a sense of humour. Nonetheless, the fact that it can be done was triumphantly proved a few years ago by Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions per Minute, a history of the protest song that covered much of the same material (and plenty more besides) just as rigorously, but with a much lighter touch, much more willingness to doubt its own heroes and, above all, a much greater awareness of the hubris and inadvertent comedy sometimes involved.

Savage, by contrast, sticks unwaveringly to the enthusiasm and reverence. The year 1966, he writes, ‘was a time of enormous ambition and serious engagement’ — a double that he himself is also clearly hoping to pull off here. But, while he generally succeeds, 1966 could certainly have benefitted from a more disengaged perspective too. As things stand, and for all its rich incidental detail, this remains a book that never really questions the long-received pop wisdom.

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  • Callipygian

    In the late 1960s, my parents were mum and dad by the age of 20 (mum) and 24 (dad). Just over a year later, they were a mum and dad again. So speaking about ‘mums and dads’ doesn’t give the current generation a realistic perspective. Some people waited in those days, for sure; but the desperately ticking biological clock has only become a problem in the past couple of decades. In the 60s, many Westerners still had children when very young.

    The best music ‘interrupted’ — indeed, slayed — by the Beatles was Bay Area instro surf. Some of it was naff (of course). Some of it was very good indeed.

  • Freddythreepwood

    It was only Rock and Roll, and we liked it. Stop trying to paint it as something it was not. The ‘groups’, later to call themselves ‘bands’, heard Buddy Holly and The Crickets and thought it was Christmas. But when it came to a choice between being ‘serious’ and taking the money, almost invariably the money won. It is Show Business after all.

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    • Sue Smith

      You’re talking mostly about the 1950’s here. I agree with Marlon Brando’s assessment of the popular music of that decade; “baby food”.

      • Freddythreepwood

        As I lived through the 50s, 60s, and 70s onward, i think I know which era I’m talking about. And Marlon Brando was to music what Elvis was to acting.

        • Sue Smith

          I also lived through those decades you mention. Brando didn’t need to be a musician to call the music of the 50’s “baby food”. Most discerning music-lovers would have also referred to it that way. And Elvis could act, actually. I remember him in “Flaming Star” and “King Creole”. Both films showed another side to this singer. Incidentally, do you know that often sang ‘flat’ in his songs? A reasonable ear could easily detect that fact. Of course, if you like ‘flatness’ as a quality in your pop music then it won’t worry you. My husband likes Elvis and occasionally plays his songs; I’ll often comment, “there, right there, he’s not even on the note”.

          Tells us how good an ear most of those record producers had! Not.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    The 1960’s decade”
    The height of the cold war between the US and the USSR, resulting in mini wars including the Vietnam war.
    The birth of the Cultural revolution in Maoist China that ended up killing tens of millions of Chinese by other Chinese
    The Indo/ Chinese war of 1962 that ended up with Asia’ two giants at each other ever since then
    The Space race that put a man on the moon by the US.
    The “golden age” of Hollywood and the Indian cinema industry.
    The age of the counter culture movement, The Free speech movement, the Feminist movement, the anti Segregationist movement, the Gay Movement, The black movement under Malcolm X, The Hippie generation, The Flower Children,
    The rebirth of the “Drug culture” of LSD, Pot, Psychedelic mushrooms,
    The golden age of Rock and role,
    The “sameness” of the American culture captured by Andy Warhol and the traditional American culture captured by Norman Rockwell.
    …. and so much more.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Have to add:”
    The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, John F, Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, leading to the eventual death of the American sense of innocence.

    • Headstrong

      The Americans lost their ‘sense of innocence’ long before the assassinations, Bernie. Surely, as a ‘historian’, you ought to know that. But then, your sense of history does leave a lot to be desired, doesn’t it?

  • John P Hughes

    The choice of photograph for this review is a good one. Dusty Springfield was the most talented and skilled British popular female vocalist of the 1960s, and she has not been matched since. (The best two of the 2010s, Joss Stone and Florence Welch, are good but not outstanding.) France, America and Canada have produced vocalists since then as good as their top singers of the 60s, but Britain has not.

    James Walton spots a basic fault with the book as the Beatles were at the height of their reputation and ‘Revolver’ was as good as any of their LPs. The Beach Boys issued ‘Pet Sounds’.in May 1966 – it was described at the time as “the most progressive pop album ever”. (See:

    Francoise Hardy’s two greatest years were 1966 and 1967, when she was using British arrangers and recorded tracks in four languages (French, German, English and Italian) and was touring (she stopped after 1968); and she was setting a style for young women which faded away after the Sixties but is now back and (in hair-style) dominant.

    So ‘pop was everything’ in 1966 but it was the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and Francoise Hardy who made it so.

  • Sue Smith

    Dusty Springfield: the Queen of Kitsch.

  • Innit Bruv

    Dusty Springfield was at times an atrocious singer.
    At her “best” she was little more than mediocre.

    • Sue Smith

      I always thought the sounds of her songs were a wall of noise followed by mostly tuneless wailing and banal lyrics. But, there you are….!!

      • Innit Bruv

        You’re right on all counts.

        • Sue Smith

          Thank you. I am trained as a Musicologist!!!

          • Innit Bruv

            A very worthy profession.

  • James Chilton

    I’ve managed to avoid knowing anything about ‘Sixties pop’. It doesn’t seem to have done me any harm.

    • Innit Bruv

      You’ve missed out on a lot of good music.

    • Hamburger

      How do you know?