Book review: 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of 1966, Jon Savage’s book pinpoints the year as the turning point of the sixties, a decade that divided the twentieth century into old world and new, says Alannah Hopkin.

Book review: 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded

Jon Savage

Faber & Faber, €31.60

1966: Year pirate radio broke BBC monopoly

THE year 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of 1966, “the defining year in global pop culture history”, according to the author of this handsome doorstop of a book.

Author Jon Savage characterises 1966 as the year that pop music turned into rock music, signalling the start of the worldwide dominance of youth culture — a process that was evident in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, but often led from London, home of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who.

Savage pinpoints 1966 as the turning point of the ’60s, a decade that divided the 20th century into old world and new, and the launching pad for the various revolutions (sexual, consumer, feminist, and gay) that followed.

A quick look at the songs that were big in 1966 (drawn from this volume’s extensive Discography, the star of its 100-plus pages of notes) will give an idea of the scope of popular music in that year: Simon & Garfunkel ‘Homeward Bound’; The Kinks ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’; Nancy Sinatra ‘These Boots Were Made for Walkin’; The Beatles ‘Nowhere Man’; James Brown ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’; The Who, ‘Substitute’; The Mamas and the Papas, ‘Monday Monday’; Dusty Springfield ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’; The Spencer Davis Group ‘Somebody Help Me’, and the Beach Boys ‘Sloop John B’, all chosen from songs released only in the first three months of the year.

But ironically, the bumper year of 1966 was the last year that the 7-inch single outsold the hugely more expensive long-player. As well as being a turning point, it was also the end of an era, the relatively short-lived age of “the single”.

It was only three years since the Beatles were selling short, monosyllabic singles about teenage courtship — ‘From Me to You’, ‘Thank You Girl’.

The Beatles had been successfully promoted in the States as ‘lovable mop-tops’, but by early 1966 the Rolling Stones bad-boy image had became more powerful than the boy-next-door image of the Beatles — even before it was wrecked by John Lennon’s casual remarks about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus.

Unlike the Beatles, the Rolling Stones were deliberately promoted as rude, confrontational louts, ‘the anti-Beatles’, the opposite of lovable mop-tops, and aggressive competitors for the throne.

They actively sought to create frenzy at their concerts, and one of their most explosive concerts was filmed in Dublin in September, 1965, while their seventh single ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was topping the charts.

During 1966 complex songs lasting over six minutes were introduced in to the singles market, for example, what Savage aptly calls ‘the New Orelans whorehouse rhythms of Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’, the Who’s crackling, four-minute-long ‘Substitute’, and the Rolling Stone’s frenetic ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’.

From this point on, people who took their music seriously wanted the more expensive ‘long-playing records’, which contained over an hour of music, and gave their favourite artists the scope to explore themes and link tracks, enhancing the package with imaginative cover art.

The author, Jon Savage, was 13-years old in 1966, so he can share some first-hand memories of the year, but more importantly, he has a breezy, readable style, and a nifty turn of phrase.

While much writing about popular culture can be extremely annoying, trivialising history by foregrounding events of minor importance, Jon Savage gets the right balance, devoting much of his text to filling in the social and political background that gave rise the popular music of the era, and never forgetting the economic structure in which the phenomenon of youth culture thrived. He has also written a history of punk, a life of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945.

Savage begins his account of 1966 by looking at the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the parallel Beatnik move

ment of the 1950s and early 60s, that laid the groundwork for the changes that were to come. Postwar Britain was a bleak place, and the appeal of the more streamlined, modern American way of life — and its music — was obvious.

The threat of nuclear war, which many people believed was inevitable, and sooner rather than later, encouraged people to live in the “now“, and not follow their parents’ model of saving for the future and an old age pension.

On 1 January 1966, the top three in the American charts were ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘We Can Work it Out’, and James Brown’s ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’. So far so groovy, as they used to say. But alongside ground-breaking records by the likes of James Brown, the Spencer Davis Group and the Supremes, the pop charts also featured what Savage calls “mums-and-dads music” by the likes of Ken Dodd, Val Doonican, the Seekers and the Bachelors. Besides being the year that pop music turned into rock, 1966’s hit parade (as the top 20 was quaintly called) also featured the maudlin country ballad, ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, sung by Tom Jones, which was 1966’s big Christmas hit.

In London, 1966 also marked a watershed in the war between the hidebound British ‘Establishment’, and the more freewheeling ways of the younger generation.

Pirate radio stations broke the monopoly of the stuffy BBC, and the cockney accent, as spoken by sharp, savvy young men like Michael Caine and David Bailey or a style icon like Twiggy, became more fashionable than the upper class drawl.

One of the defining experiences that distinguished the old guard from the new was the experience of psychedelic drugs, already a feature of radical American life, but which seems only to have reached London in 1966. The Beatles were famously turned on to marijuana by Bob Dylan in 1964.

LSD was legal until late in ’66, and the Beatles were first introduced to it by their dentist, Dr John Riley, in Mach 1965, when he spiked their after-dinner coffee (and their wives’) with LSD-soaked sugar cubes. John Lennon’s song ‘Help!’ was a direct product of this experience.

Neither did the Rolling Stones enjoy their first experience of LSD, which according to Jon Savage, they initially sampled in Ireland, while guests of Tara Browne at Luggala, the famous Guinness family country house in the Wicklow mountains.

Also in the party were the ill-fated John Paul Getty III and his wife, Talitha, Anita Pallenberg and Michael Cooper, a young photographer who captured the moment in reportedly memorably disturbing photographs.

Marianne Faithfull later identified this as a turning point: ‘the start of a quest for decadence among these people.’ The experimentation with drugs also created a rift between the performers and their inner circle, who had experimented with psychedelic drugs, and those who had not, and were fed up of hearing about the other crowd’s drug trips.

August 1966 was possibly the best year ever for summer hits: Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’, Georgie Fame’s ‘Get Away’, the Lovin’ Spooful’s ‘Summer in the City’ and the Sandpipers ‘Guantanamera’.

But while London always had the edge as far as style, by mid 1966, it was the Americans who had the more vibrant music scene.

Jon Savage’s account of the formation of the Velvet Underground and their relationship with Andy Warhol is a bravura piece of writing, cutting to the core of what was really going on in perhaps the most genuinely strange rock band ever. For this, and much more, it is well worth spending time with this superbly produced book.

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