1967 – when the Swinging Sixties finally lifted off for this teenager
The Swinging Sixties. The label stuck only because of its lazy use of alliteration. The Sixties didn’t really swing at all. The era of swing was surely in the 1930s and 1940s, with the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller as its soundtrack. If we had to give the Sixties a moniker that alliterated, Sexy might have been better, or Stirring, or Seditious, or Stormy. How about Spaced Out, or Stoned, or Psychedelic, if we accept the ‘p’ as silent, as it always should. What is not in any doubt is that the decade of the 1960s caught the attention and imagination of a generation and continues to hold fascination for social historians to this day.
I tell everybody I was a child of the Sixties, though this of course is not strictly true. Born in 1949, my childhood spanned the 1950s but I like to think I grew up, that is, I emerged from boyhood to manhood, during this time of extraordinary social, cultural and political change. I can only point to the current digital revolution as its equal in consequence.
For make no mistake about it, what happened during those brief, heady years changed our world beyond recognition. The Old World was crumbling and a New Order took its place, not to everybody’s taste, it has to be admitted, but its momentum was unstoppable. I had not lived through the War years but I grew up in its aftermath and, my word, it was a drab and dreary place. Not to put too fine a point on it, England was knackered, exhausted and broke after six years of fighting. The visual evidence of its decline was all about, even to my childish eyes. Bomb sites had yet to be cleared, ‘temporary’ prefab buildings dotted the urban landscape, rationing did not end until 1954, food, though not scarce, was universally bland and unadventurous, pollution was dreadful (I remember being sent home early from school when the pea-soupers descended and it was true you could barely see your hand in front of your face), the Cold War was at its height and society, with its etiquette, morals and principles, was deeply conservative. To me, everything seemed so grey. Even the weather was rubbish. Look at any cricket photos from the era and the ubiquitous piles of sawdust behind the stumps tell their own story. Austerity! The politicians of today have no idea what true austerity is.
The Pill changed everything. All at once, the great brake on sexual behaviour – the fear of an unwanted pregnancy – was released and a new era of free love was ushered in. Sex outside of marriage became available. Men have always wanted this of course but women were fearful of fully embracing it, for obvious reasons. Now women could decide for themselves; they were empowered and felt they were in a position call the shots, for the first time in history. The sexual revolution, it was called. Parents called it permissiveness. Of course, it was a bit more complicated than that – human relations always are – but certainly there was a feeling abroad that the times they were a’ changing.
Hair was all the rage. I refer of course to the love-rock musical by that name, famous for its irreverence, nudity and catchy songs, which seemed to embody the mood of hippie counterculture. I went to see it. Something and nothing, I thought. To be honest, I had seen more on a French beach. But hair, our human locks, has long since acted as a symbol in the revolving cycles of history. The longer it is grown, the looser the social constraints. Short hair is often viewed as belonging to someone under the control of the state, a member of the armed forces, for example or someone in prison or found guilty of a crime. What did the French do to suspected collaborateurs after the war? They shaved their heads. Long, thick hair, by contrast, has historically been associated with wealth, power and prestige. We grew our hair.
Colour entered our lives, particularly in dress. I remember my first pink shirt, the last word in trendy chic, I thought. Before long, all colours of the rainbow, and some that were not, decked out our clothes. Dark suits, white shirts and black shoes were confined to the dustbin of fashion. Vivid hues, random patterns and outlandish designs were a la mode, or the ‘in’ things, as we used to say. Groovy! Embarrassing now, looking back on it all. The whole point was not to look like our parents, not anything like our parents. Which was odd really because their generation had been brought up to copy, to emulate, to model themselves on, their elders. The French had a phrase for it (they usually do); during the student riots in Paris in 1968, the apologists called it le dereglement de tous les sens. That was it – deregulation. We were all for that.
Undoubtedly the fuel that drove the engine of change was music, both the actual sound and how it was delivered. The crooners – Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Des O’Connor, Matt Monro, Andy Williams, their names trip off the tongue – dominated the airwaves of the BBC. All of a sudden, the soft intimate style of the solo artist was rudely shattered by the wail of the electric guitar, the throb of the bass and the crash of the drums. In a sense, pop music had already made its appearance via Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Hollies and The Searchers and of course The Beatles but they all seemed distinctly lightweight when hard rock burst on the scene. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and others all had a much harder edge to them and were a world away from the music our parents listened to. War, peace, political strife, social upheaval, teenage angst, free love, protest and rebellion were the themes of the day, a far cry from the lush romanticism of the previous decade.
BBC Radio simply could not, or would not, cater for the popular demand of the new music so pirate radio stations were set up to broadcast from international waters, either in ships or disused gun forts, illegal but eagerly listened to. Radio Luxembourg was followed by Radio Caroline and Radio London, bold, brash, casual, irreverent and of course commercial. People turned on in their millions. The transistor radio was now being mass-produced and was in widespread use. In keeping with just about every teenager, I tuned in to the Top 40 every night under the blankets after lights out, veering between London and Caroline, depending which had the better signal, which was never very good. It was all jolly exciting.
Who decided that 1967 was to be a summer of love was unclear but his identity did not concern me. If that was what it was going to be, bring it on. At the age of 18 (going on 15), I was ready, on the cusp, you might say. But that was the trouble; ‘on the cusp’ had been the story of my life up until that point. I am reminded of the famous lines from a Philip Larkin poem:
Sexual intercourse began
In Nineteen Sixty Three
(Which was rather late for me)
In 1963, I was fourteen, so it was a little early for me. But you take the point. If I had been born ten years earlier, or for that matter ten years later, the Summer of Love would have been of little interest to me. The fact is I was there, old enough, young enough and impressionable enough for it to pulse through my unresisting veins. I had just finished my A levels and though I was to return to school for another term – the 3rd Year Sixth - to take my Oxford Entrance (which I failed, thereby proving that their admissions process was robust and effective), I felt I was now an adult and ready to join in the fun. That summer, I first dipped my toes into professional cricket. Within a year, I was peering over a valley into Afghanistan from the vantage point of the Khyber Pass accompanied, not by the Carry On cast, but by excitable, Kalashnikov-flourishing, Pashtun tribesmen. Their idea of protection duties was to fire their weapons randomly into the air, which frightened us more than potential kidnappers but it was an experience amongst many on that U19s cricket tour of Pakistan that we never forgot. I even played against the young Imran Khan. Yes, I was ready all right.
The Summer of Love refers to a gathering of some 100,000 hippies in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco for an impromptu celebration of peace and love and long hair and sex and drugs and rock and roll. We were encouraged to turn on, tune in and drop out. And Scott McKenzie urged us, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Most did. Flower shops in San Francisco made a killing. Not for nothing was the area dubbed by the newspapers as Hashbury; the place gorged on cannabis and LSD. The closest I got to events happening on the West Coast was a dodgy night club on the South Coast, Brighton, to be exact, led astray by some older Surrey team-mates who should have known better. But it was exciting times. I loved it and started, not very successfully, to grow a Zapata moustache.
In Britain, we did not take the whole saturnalia terribly seriously. It was a period of excess and a certain amount of rebelliousness was in the air. But there was no hint of crisis or menace. After all, what were we protesting about? Nothing much. The stifling atmosphere of our childhood? That was about it. Over in America, it was a completely different kettle of fish. There, the Establishment really did think the barricades were being stormed. Mind you, there was more to protest about. The country was wracked with divisions of race and was in the midst of a deeply unpopular war. Many feared the call-up papers to fight, and maybe to die, in the paddy fields of Vietnam, all for a cause in which they did not believe. To us, it was all a bit of fun; to them it was a deadly serious game.
Of course, we are all now aware there was a dark side to all these hippie frolics. It can be summed up in one word – drugs. The line we were peddled was that marijuana was pretty harmless, certainly less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. I remember having long discussions with my room-mate at university. I would return from an evening in the Student Bar to find him stoned out of his mind, communing with the vibrant colours of the curtains (they were brown). What’s the difference between smoking weed and drinking 10 pints of lager, he demanded. At least I don’t end the evening fighting and brawling. Look at me, he said. I’m as docile as a lamb. Welsh lamb, I reminded him – he was from Cardiff. I have to admit I had no compelling answer; there did not seem to be much of a moral distinction. But if we knew then what we know now, that drugs would become the bane of modern society and the cause of so much human misery and suffering, perhaps I could have assembled a more robust argument. We might not have been so blasé about California sunshine – and I am not referring to the weather.
Drugs passed me by. I am not being virtuous here. On account of the fact that I have never smoked was one reason. Another was that a career in professional sport was beckoning and the two were obviously antithetical. But more than that, I just never fancied it. Many of my peers did and dabbled for a while before giving it up. Most of us grew up, got jobs, got married, had kids and moved on. Some I guess never did, and paid the price. You still see them, those still alive, in pockets of hippiedom, scruffily dressed, with tattoos, ear rings, long, unkempt iron coloured hair, rat tails hanging down the back of their necks, often lost in a fog of marijuana. We all have our demons, I guess. But conversing with the curtains was never one of mine.
The Summer of Love came and went. The Swinging Sixties merged into the excesses of the Seventies. The Eighties were soon upon us, swiftly followed by the Nineties and before we knew it, a new millennium had dawned. It’s interesting that catchy little alliterations have adorned no decade since the ‘60s. The Naughty Nineties? The Nonentity Noughties? The Tight-laced Teens? Which brings me round in a complete circle back to those teenage years when all seemed possible. Can it be true that our behaviour let the genie out of the bottle, that our laissez-faire attitude to the maxims and values of our parents has bred a more brutish and less civilised social order? Are we responsible for the social ills of our drug-fuelled world? Or can we sit back in our lean and slipper’d pantaloon with spectacles on nose and pouch on side, and blame the younger generation? It is after all their world now.