1963: The cultural watershed of the 20th century?

No decade of the 20th century is as talked about as the 1960s.

1963: The cultural watershed of the 20th century?

None is more seen as a watershed, none as much as a dividing line — between traditional, conservative values and the more liberal attitudes that have become the norm across the western world. But where best to pinpoint that change?

For Robin Morgan and Ariel Leve in their new book, the answer is in the title: 1963: The Year of Revolution. “It was a hugely tectonic year of change politically, socially and culturally,” says Morgan, whose book with Leve is an oral biography in which many of the leading lights of 1963 give their personal take on a special time in their lives.

“The headlines of the day are [part of history],” continues Morgan, who is a former editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. “Civil rights, feminism, nuclear test bans, Kennedy’s assassination. But the biggest story slipped by — the emancipation of youth.”

The “youthquake” Morgan speaks of changed popular culture forever and was made possible by a once-off confluence of conditions — postwar prosperity, plentiful jobs, and a boom in the young population. These brought about the first generation of independent young people. “Before 1963 young people were factory fodder or cannon fodder,” says Morgan, “unless they had education and connections. After ’63, youth had political, commercial and cultural power — that year, through music, fashion and art, young people changed the world.”

Morgan’s initial inkling that 1963 was a year worth exploring came as he was trying to date a photograph of the Beatles (he works as a manager for the photographic archive of Terry O’Neill, who was an active chronicler of 1960s London and whose photographs form a large part of the book). “I discovered it was taken the night they recorded their first national television appearance in Jan 1963. During that research I came across another incredible coincidence: the BBC had hired an unknown young American musician to sing on a televised play. That night, at the same time, on black-and-white television when Britain only had two TV channels, The Beatles appeared on one side, and if you switched to the other channel, there was this kid Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’. It just seemed like alchemy.”

Morgan uncovered more images and the stories behind them, including the Rolling Stones releasing their first single, “The story just snowballed from there,” he says. “Finding photographers, musicians, designers, artists, models all getting their first break, all jumping aboard this roller-coaster ride. They were all nobodies — but by the end of that year they were globally known and recognised. They started a revolution, the youth revolution. And I couldn’t find a book out there that had evidenced this.”

Morgan decided he wanted to tell the story of the year in the words of these “nobodies”. He approached Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, Jackie Collins, Alan Parker, Cilla Black and many others, and enlisted the journalist Ariel Leve to help with interviews.

In Their Own Words

The book soon took on the form of an oral history. As Leve puts, “it’s easy to assume a lot of things, but when you speak to people you get an insight into how it really was; you go beyond the anecdote. When you speak to the people who lived through that time, it allows you to have a deeper understanding of the time. It became a picture that was much more in depth than any we could have had just summarising”.

Leve’s own mother was a poet living in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and she remembers her repeated description of those times. “Exciting,” she says, “that’s the word they kept using.” It’s an excitement reflected in the book, she says, “The one thing that kept coming up in the interviews was how spontaneous it all was. There was no plan. What I really thought was the collective feeling of that time was of innocence. It was such a period of joyousness and innocence and that was reflected in everyone’s story. At that time, when the Stones and The Beatles were starting out, they didn’t think it would last more than a few years, and that they would have to get a real job.

“There are different types of revolution, like the digital revolution, that change our lives, but this was something new that I don’t think will ever happen again. Having a chance to explore that was interesting.”

Not all the subjects are equally well remembered. Take Swiss actress Linda Geiser. In the autumn of 1963, she shot a scene in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker that was one of the earliest instances of nudity in a mainstream film. “I spent months trying to track her down,” says Morgan. “All I had was a name. I pulled every public record in New York state hoping she still lived there. There were scores. I wrote letters, sent emails — drawing blanks all the time — and then her name cropped up in a German-language newspaper during an internet search. It was an interview with a 75-year-old Swiss actress and her 45-year-old American lover about their relationship and the age-gap. I searched property records for his name and lo and behold it appeared on the same address on New York’s Lower East side as one of those I’d pulled with the actress’s name.

“I put a letter through her door. She welcomed me in and told me the most amazing story of coming to New York from Switzerland in 1963, working in a party shop, hanging out with other kids, one called Andy Warhol, and landing this part in the movie because no American actress would touch it. Her story summed up that year — shop girl to cultural icon whose small role made cinematic history and drove a nail into the coffin of 50 years of movie censorship in the States.”

Then and Now

For the people who lived it, 1963 really seems to have been a time of remarkable opportunity. As the photographer Terry O’Neill puts it in the book: “The big thing for a lot of young lads was that they could leave school at 15 with no educational or technical qualifications. They lived from week to week but they never went without. It was the same for girls. There were lots of jobs, and flats were cheap and plentiful.”

The London of 2013 could not be more different. We now think of London as prohibitively expensive, a place where property is becoming the reserve of the international elite; a place where opportunities for young people come in the form of unpaid internships that suit only the wealthy. The social mobility of the 1960s has all but evaporated. By comparison, O’Neill’s view is repeated throughout Morgan and Leve’s book.

As the model Mandy Rice-Davies says: “We were the first generation of girls who could leave home before getting married. We were a power to reckon with because it was so easy to get a job. Everyone had a job. I was 18 in ’63. I’d been in London about two years. I’d left home in Birmingham at 16. You could get off a train and get a job the same day and, if you didn’t like it, leave and get another job. And you could rent an apartment for a couple of pounds a week.”

Even if you didn’t want a job, you could scrimp by, as Keith Richards recalls. “If you went to enough parties you could pick up beer bottles — empty ones — and you could take them back to the pub and get a couple of pennies for each one. So we used to hit all these parties just to gather the beer bottles. We’d take the empty bottles away and count them up and say that’s the rent for the week — fine — everything else is groovy.”

For young people now, the price of entry to the city where it’s all happening (still London, but also New York, or San Francisco, or Paris) is far, far higher. A latter-day Allen Ginsberg would probably write, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by careers in investment banking, dragging themselves through the gentrified streets at dawn looking for a caffeine fix.”

It’s enough to make one jealous, though Ariel Leve was, she says, “inspired” by such stories, rather than green with envy. “Today,” she says, “people are much more focused on making money, whereas then ambition was about having fun, and enjoying your life, finding something you loved to do and felt passionate about.

“Now I think that with the cost of living today and the problems that everyone has, young people are aware; they are laden down with the stress of having to earn a living. It’s more about earning an income than having an adventure.

“The energy that was fuelling the ambition was truly about having a good time and not a preconceived agenda. I think that’s gotten lost — certainly in my experience as a young person I wasn’t as spontaneous or ‘in the moment’ as the people I spoke to in 1963 were. Because back then they weren’t as focused on the destination. So I did feel that must have been a more hopeful way to go about life and it was a great opportunity to relive it with them.”


Many of the big news stories of 1963 seemed to mark shifts away from an old order. The Daily Mirror coined the term “Beatlemania”, and the supercilious attitudes of almost every TV interviewer the band came across now spoke eloquently of a previous generation’s bemusement.

Together with Bob Dylan, in 1963 The Beatles ushered in a new age, where music was about cultural identity and values as much as what it sounded like. Just the previous year, in 1962, the charts in the US and UK were dominated by 1950s-era crooners. Buddy Holly was hanging on in there posthumously, and Elvis was increasingly a throwback. But by the end of 1963, The Beatles and Dylan and the music they heralded was all-conquering. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in its cover photo popularised the Greenwich Village folk scene; in its music it ushered in the age of the album artist, and, with songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, gave pop music a new political vocabulary. Songs like ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ strove for something far more complicated than the corny platitudes of pop songs, more fitting for a time of sexual revolution.

In Aug 1963 came the pivotal moment of the civil rights movement. Shocking televised images of police dogs and fire hoses turned on black protesters, some of them children, in Birmingham, Alabama, had made racial equality a mainstream issue. And, significantly, the March oN Washington, joined by 250,000 people, came with a live soundtrack from the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (right). It was there that Martin Luther King (left) gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The year had begun with Alabama governor George Wallace standing on the steps of the state capitol declaring: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.” But 1963 was the beginning of the end for people like him. Change was even on the lips of British prime minister Harold Macmillan, who told the South African parliament in Cape Town: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” The most high-profile political symbol of youth having its head, John F Kennedy, delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and also praised the “confidence and imagination” of the Irish people.

Back in the UK, the Profumo Affair made a celebrity rather than a pariah of its femme fatale, Christine Keeler. She did not cower in shame, but posed for one of the most iconic nudes of the century (see previous page), now a museum piece.



“Growing up in a postwar England era spurred us on. We’d heard enough about the war, which was all grown- ups ever seemed to talk about. We wanted to get out of this war mind-set. We’d all grown up facing the draft. I was thinking, “I just wanna get out the god-damned house. I don’t want to go in the army.” It was dopey. But conscription had ended a couple of years before in 1960. We were all facing this new space and suddenly we didn’t have to do that. Your whole life you’d heard, “When you’re 18 you’ll be in the army and that will sort you out.” Suddenly this miracle happened and we didn’t have to do the draft. And you are 17 or 18 and you have all that testosterone and this amazing spare free time. Woo- hoo! Just go with what I feel like.”


“We were earning — I was playing with four or five different bands before I joined Alan Price — and it was cash. I earned the same amount of money playing with the bands as I was earning in the factory. I didn’t think it would last. I was young. It was exciting and I

wanted to do it. And I could always get a proper job later. There was no drugs or groupies then, but there was beer — any beer. A crate of beer and a pack of cards and a sleep on the road: touring.


“In and around Liverpool the Beatles weren’t nothing special. I got up and sang at the Cavern with the Beatles. They had previously done Hamburg, where they went as a struggling band but came back just so experienced. But they weren’t the best band in Liverpool.

I was a guest singer with the bigger band in Liverpool, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. Ringo was their drummer.

There was millions of bands in Liverpool and Manchester and a lot of them were really, really good.”

1963: The milestones

JAN 11 — ‘Please Please Me’ is released in the United Kingdom by The Beatles. It becomes the band’s first number 1 single.

JAN 28 — Harvey Gantt enters Clemson University in SC, the last US state to hold out against racial integration.

FEB 19 – The publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique launches the reawakening of the Women’s Movement in the United States as women’s organisations and consciousness raising groups spread.

MAR 5 —Country music superstar Patsy Cline is killed in a plane crash in Tennessee.

MAR 22 — The Beatles release their first album, ‘Please Please Me’.

MAY 1 — Coca-Cola introduces its its first diet drink, Tab cola.

MAY 2 — Thousands of African Americans are arrested while protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Infamously, fire hoses and police dogs are turned on protesters, including children.

MAY 27 — Bob Dylan releases his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Its cover photo comes to symbolise the age, as do songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

JUN 3 — Pope John XXIII dies; is succeeded by Giovanni Battista Montini, who becomes Pope Paul VI.

JUN 5 — John Profumo resigns his Cabinet position in the UK government, admitting he misled the House of Commons about the nature of his relationship with Christine Keeler.

JUN 7 — The Rolling Stones release their first single, a cover version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’. It reaches Number 21.

JUN 11 — John F Kennedy broadcasts his Civil Rights Address, where he asks for “the kind of equality of treatment that we would want for ourselves”.

JUN 16 — Russian cosmonaut Valetina Tereshkova is the first woman to orbit the Earth.

JUN 20 — The “red telephone” (actually a teleprinter) between Moscow and Washington DC establishes direct communications between the leaders of the two Cold War rivals.

JUN 27 — John F Kennedy arrives in Ireland for a three-day state visit to his ancestral home.

JUL 26 — An earthquake in Skopje destroys 80% of the city, killing over 1,000 and leaving 200,000 homeless.

AUG 5 — The United States and Russia sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

AUG 8 — £2.6 million is stolen in the ‘Great Train Robbery’ in England.

AUG 28 — Some 250,000 join the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are among the musical performers.

OCT 4 — Hurricane Flora, one of the worst Atlantic storms in history, hits Cube and the island of Hispaniola, killing almost 7,000 people.

OCT 8 — Sam Cooke and his band are arrested for trying to book into a whites-only motel in Louisiana.” Cooke records ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ later that year.

NOV 22 — John F Kennedy is shot and killed while travelling in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas.

NOV 24 — Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s killer, is shot dead by Jack Ruby, a Dallas businessman.

DEC 26 — The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” are released in the United States, ahead of the band’s historic visit in 1964.

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