1966: The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage

Posted on 19th November 2015 by Jon Savage
Jon Savage sets the scene for his new study of music and society which centres on the year things went full swing:1966.

At the end of the first week in January 1967, TIME published a cover story on “The Man of the Year”, which it defined as "a generation: the man–––and woman––of 25 and under." The cover image showed a Caucasian young man and woman, together with a black and an Asian youth. Projecting into "the closing third of the 20th century", Robert Jones wrote "that generation looms larger than all the exponential promises of science or technology: it will soon be the majority in charge. In the U.S., citizens of 25 and under in 1966 nearly outnumbered their elders: by 1970, there will be 100 million Americans in that age bracket."

Over six pages, TIME surveyed this emerging global cohort: "in other big, highly industrialised nations, notably Russia and Canada, the young also constitute half the population. If the statistics imply change, the credentials of the younger generation guarantee it. Never have the young been so assertive or so articulate, so well educated or so worldly. Predictably, they are a highly independent breed and ––to adult eyes––their independence has made them highly unpredictable. This is not just a new generation but a new kind of generation".

The Under 25’s had already "staked out their own mini society", not just of consumer items but of new attitudes: with a greater proportion in tertiary education than ever before, they were perturbed by the war, sexually tolerant, frankly hedonistic and media savvy. ‘Theirs is an immediate philosophy,’ Jones wrote; "tailored to the immediacy of their lives. The young no longer feel that they are preparing for life; they are living it. 'Black Power Now!' cries Stokely Carmichael. 'Action Now!' demands Mario Salvo. 'Drop Out Now!' urges Timothy Leary."

This was the "Now Generation". Their exaltation of the moment was bringing them into conflict with their parents’ generation, who had had their youth during the hard times of Depression and War. TIME talked to Leslie Paul, whose memoir of his experiences in the back-to-nature youth movements of the 1920’s was entitled “Angry Young Man”: "the relations of the generations may become the central social issues of the next 50 years"’ he told the reporter, "as the relations between the classes have been for the last half-century."

It seemed like teen takeover time, fears rehearsed in science-fiction films like “Privilege” and “Wild in the Streets”. This ignored the real-politik, which was that youth still had a long way to go before their ideas would prevail, and even then, these would be muted by the inevitable compromises of the political process and the small erosions of everyday life. However an unusually upbeat TIME hoped that "the Man of the Year" would "infuse the future with a new sense of morality, a transcendent and contemporary ethic that could infinitely enrich the empty society".

During that first week of January, the Rolling Stones were promoting the release of their new single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, a title almost calculated to drive a wedge between the generations. ‘Have the Stones Gone Gimmick Mad?’ asked Disc and Music Echo, before declaring that the record was "certain to have headmistresses, archbishops, MPs, mother’s unions, and Mrs. Mary Whitehouse raising a rumpus or at least locking up their daughters". Jagger defended the song as a declaration of love and lust: "there are not such strong sexual undertones as it would appear. It’s not really that nasty at all. It’s a happy song about proposing to a young lady".

There was a raft of records being readied for release early in that new year: British singles by the New Vaudeville Band, the Four Tops, the Spencer Davis Group, the Hollies and the Beatles, as well as the new album by the Rolling Stones. In America, there were albums by the Doors, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground and Nico. Also released in January were two records that, although unheralded and hardly reviewed, would dominate the British chart that late winter: Englebert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” and Petula Clark’s “This Is My Song” -both covers of a song written by Charlie Chaplin in 1966 in a deliberately old-fashioned style.

Plans for the new year were also under way in San Francisco that week. There was a big gathering scheduled for the 14th, as announced in the fifth issue of the San Francisco Oracle: "a union of love and activism previously separated by categorical dogma and label mongering will finally occur ecstatically when Berkeley political activists and hip community and San Francisco’s spiritual regeneration and contingents from the emerging revolutionary generation all over California meet for a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park".

The idea was to keep up the momentum of successful 1966 events like the Trips Festival and the Love Pageant Rally and to unite the already warring factions of the Haight/ Ashbury. This would be the coming out ball of what was already being called the Love Generation: "a new concert of human relations being developed within the youthful underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared so that a revolution of form can be filled with a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love in the Revelation of all mankind. The Human Be-In is the joyful, face-to-face beginning of the new epoch".

The amazing thing was that it worked.

The 14th of January 1967 was a beautiful sunny winter’s day in San Francisco. As the images of strangely dressed and beatific long-haired young people spread through America’s media, they helped to publicise the Love Generation and San Francisco’s status as the new pop location. Both London and LA were over: Swinging London was dead and gone, while the late 1966 Sunset Strip riots had done their damage: with several clubs already closed or on the point of closing, the Whisky A Go Go returned to an over-21’s policy in mid January, booking Motown or Soul acts rather than rock groups because they pulled in an older audience. 

What Swinging London and then the Sunset Strip had been to 1966, the Haight/ Ashbury became to 1967: the overarching idea that pulled youth culture along with it, whether or not anyone had direct experience of what had been germinating for a couple of years. This simplified idea would create havoc during the following few months - the Haight/Ashbury was on the point of being swamped by the youth of America in their thousands - but its job was already done, its propaganda already seeding the air. The psychosis of 1966 would be replaced, in 1967, by love.



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