25 March 1966, the Jefferson Airplane and the Mystery Trend played a “rock & roll dance benefit” in support of the Vietnam Day Committee. Costing $1.50 to get in, the “peace trip” was held at Harmon Gym, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley – the institution that, after Mario Savio’s December 1964 “put your bodies on the gears” speech, had become the centre of American student radicalism, in particular the protests against the escalating Vietnam war.
The event was one of several “peace rock” benefits held in the gym that spring that cemented the link between the politicos of Berkeley and the bohemians of the nascent San Franciscan music scene: others showcased the Grateful Dead, the Great Society, and the (original) Charlatans. Citing one of these shows, the columnist Ralph Gleason observed that the city was “on the verge of another dancing craze” such as had not happened “since the swing era”. Nothing apparently untoward there.
The trouble started a few weeks later, when the San Francisco Examiner cited the Harmon Gym event in a highly critical article on Berkeley. “The sweet, acrid odour of marijuana pervaded the area, many of the dancers were obviously intoxicated,” wrote reporter Jack S McDowell. “Sexual misconduct was blatant.” The background to this was the release of an addendum to the Burns report, prepared by California’s state senate committee, which alleged communist infiltration of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and much more, summed up by the phrase “a deluge of filth”.
Six days after the Examiner article, Ronald Reagan took the stage of the Cow Palace to deliver a defining speech of his gubernatorial campaign. He cited the Harmon Gym show as a prime example of what he called “the morality gap at Berkeley”. Conflating rock’n’roll, drugs and sex – “the nude torsos of men and women” projected by the light show – with the “filthy speech movement” and the Vietnam Day Committee, Reagan called for a root and branch examination of “the charges of communism and blatant sexual misbehaviour on the campus”. As he thundered: “What in heaven’s name does academic freedom have to do with rioting, with anarchy, with attempts to destroy the primary purpose of the university, which is to educate young people?”
Having made his name during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan was busy positioning himself as a figurehead in the Republican resurgence. His positions were frequently and forcefully expressed: pro-business, anti-regulation; pro-self-help (as in the the “creative society” idea – a forerunner of Cameron’s “big society”), anti-state intervention; pro-the squeezed middle-aged, anti- the long-hairs, communists and war protesters who seemingly thronged the campus of Berkeley.
Reagan’s claims about the Harmon Gym concert were, his biographer Robert Dallek concedes, “vastly exaggerated”. However they were in service to a powerful feeling: namely that, faced with the symptoms of incipient psychedelia, many adults were convinced the freedoms of popular culture and President Lyndon B Johnson’s “great society” had got out of hand. It wasn’t just sex and drugs, but anti-war protest and inner-city riot. Things were going too far too fast. It was time to apply the brakes, and Reagan would be the most visible agent of that backlash.
The 1960s remain in the folk memory as a golden age of pop culture, with 1966 enshrined in the UK as the year of swinging London and the winning of the World Cup. It was the year of the singles that are regularly collected on those TV advertised compilations you buy for £5 and under: Sunny Afternoon; Reach Out I’ll Be There; Good Vibrations; Summer in the City – mass pop art so imperishable that it cannot be dimmed by cheap nostalgia and endless repetition.
But 1966 was a year of turmoil. It began in pop and ended in rock; began in civil rights and ended in black power; began in the great society and ended in the Republican resurgence. Inspired by the success of the civil rights movement and boosted by the money pouring into the music and youth industries, young people in the US and the UK began to think of another way of life, that didn’t involve being like your parents. They were beginning to envision what the future might be.
It was also the year that the torch passed from England to America, from London to Los Angeles, which became the central pop location, thanks to the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees – ersatz Beatles who bloomed just as the originals left the stage. California had its own youthtopias, reasonably autonomous zones where the young could congregate and try out new ways of living: the Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco, the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
Pop Modernism was beginning to fragment under the impact of marijuana, LSD, and sheer exhaustion. Pop’s Herculean acceleration resulted in many casualties: during 1966, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones all crashed out from the pace, but not before they had provocatively expressed their dissatisfaction – Dylan with his polarising electric show segments, the Beatles with their notorious “Butcher” LP sleeve (pulped by their American record company, Capitol, at a cost of $200,000), the Rolling Stones with the drag video for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
At the same time, there were the new total environments: the lightshows of the San Franciscan ballrooms, the op art designs of cavernous new discotheques like New York’s Cheetah, the sensorium of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which gave the impression of “everything occurring simultaneously”. By 1966, many strands of art, music, and entertainment were all coming to the same point by different means: the total focus on the instant that is the hallmark of many eastern religions; the happening; the drug experience; the ecstasy of dancing.
It was also a year of incredible fertility in black American music. To name just one artist: James Brown visited the UK for the first time in March; played Madison Square Garden in April; appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time in May, with his own musicians. In late June, he was the only major pop star to play for the activists on the March Against Fear, two days after they had been tear-gassed by state troopers: this was the last great united action of the civil rights movement and the moment when Stokely Carmichael launched the idea of Black Power.
James Brown also made one of two records that, during 1966, completely exploded linear time in their respective quests for the perpetual present. The first was Tomorrow Never Knows. The second was on the flip of the single Don’t Be A Drop-Out: Brown placed a song called Tell Me That You Love Me, adapted from a live recording. Looping the vocal with a guitar figure by Lonnie Mack, Brown and producer Bud Hopgood created a shocking delirium of sound with an insanely fast drum pattern that directly prefigured drum’n’bass, nearly 30 years later.
Pop music was the new Olympus. Lou Reed recognised it as the arena for his generation: “The music is the only live, living thing.” Writing in the same issue of Aspen magazine, Robert Shelton agreed: “The age of the new mass arts is moving us upward, inward, outward and forward. In this era of exploration, there are many breeds of navigators, but few more daring than the poet-musicians who are leading our pop music in new directions … expressing an avant-garde, underground philosophy to a mass audience, deepening the thinking of masses of young people.”
Many records by those “poet-musicians” made the charts. The most obvious example is the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, recorded in sessions that spanned 60 hours over seven months, at a cost of $50,000. It was technological yet emotional, sensual and spiritual – designed as a moment of fusion that would reset pop culture’s polarity to positive.
What was thrilling about 1966 was the way in which things were not business as usual, a feeling that can still be heard in the records of the year: music was connected to events outside the pop culture bubble and was understood to do so by many of its listeners. It was a year when audacious ideas and experiments were at a premium in the mass market and in youth culture, with a corresponding reaction from those for whom the rate of change was too quick.
The more the young pushed forward, the more the adults pushed back. In the summer, the most famous pop group in the world came up against immutable forces: xenophobic rightwing protesters in Tokyo; the agents of President Marcos, taking physical revenge for an alleged insult; and the deep south disc jockeys who, incensed by the reprinting of John Lennon’s comments about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus”, organised boycotts, threatened the group’s tour and conducted “Beatle Burnings”.
The polarity had flipped from positive to negative. The Beatles seemed to have become a lightning rod for all sorts of tensions that had little to do with their music: they had become a target for all those who resisted the pace of change. In August the writer James Morris declared that “the Beatles’ absolute aloofness to old prejudices and preconceptions, their brand of festive iconoclasm, has developed an attraction for me, as it has for millions more sceptics the world over”. But this iconoclasm had its dangers. As Morris quoted an elderly acquaintance: “I’ll tell you what the trouble with the Beatles is: they’ve got no respect.”
More than any other year thus far in that decade, it was the time when that increasingly assertive and visible youth culture collided with realpolitik. In the UK, Time magazine’s idea of Swinging London came up against the Labour government’s wage freeze: another kind of austerity. “The age of pop” seemed to be swinging “to a stop”, observed the Sunday Times that August. Late in the year, a senior Time magazine editor opined that “swingin’ has got out of hand because it is the kind of fun only a rich nation can afford – and England is no longer a rich nation.”
While Good Vibrations was rising to No 1 in the UK and the US, the anti-youth culture backlash began. Within a week of Reagan’s election as governor of California, a major disturbance erupted on the the Sunset Strip, when a protest by over a thousand teens – incensed by the heavy-handed policing of archaic curfew laws – provoked a strong reaction. With LA being a media centre, it made national news. Over the next few weeks, both sides escalated their rhetoric, climaxing in brutal police beatings on 26 November and 10 December.
What was left after the Sunset Strip riots was an unpleasant aftertaste, a harbinger of the more serious flashpoints to come. For what it seemed to come down to was generational warfare – what Derek Taylor, then the Beach Boys’ PR, called “the whole rotten issue of the Old v the Young”. As the journalist Jerry Hopkins wrote that December, just after the height of the rioting, “the fact remains that there are two factions, two sides. One generation does not understand or refuses to try to understand the one behind it … the line has been drawn.”
The young had begun to flex their muscles – to see beyond a market to a different way of life. As Time reported, “In the US, citizens of 25 and under in 1966 nearly outnumbered their elders: by 1970, there will be 100 million Americans in that age bracket … 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.”
The 60s peaked in 1966; it was the year when the decade exploded. The songs from that time still enchant successive generations, but they were also a response to their place and time. It was, as the writer and cultural catalyst Tony Hall said that December, “pretty obvious that contemporary music reflects contemporary life and vice versa.” Pop did reflect the world during 1966, that there was something more than image and sales at stake.
It wasn’t just the sudden loosening of bonds caused by the Beatles’ success and the money that flowed into the youth sector. The music of that year co-existed with the move towards greater social freedom, whether in the liberalising legislation of the UK’s Labour government or the various US liberation movements, civil rights groups like the SNCC and the SCLC, the National Organisation of Women, homophile groups like the Daughters of Bilitis, Vanguard or the Mattachine Society. It spoke of the drive towards democracy and openness that makes it still contested today, that militate against the generational nostalgia that renders the period rote.
What’s fascinating is how politicised the High 60s remain. This era has consistently been denigrated by rightwing politicians over a 30 year period, since the Reagan/Thatcher era. The structures of society have been altered – in particular by laws relating to youth benefits, structural unemployment etc – to remove power from youth as a cohort. But still the High 60s are dismissed by various pundits and historians, as overhyped, unrealistic, elitist, “only a few people in London” – quite apart from the ad hominem attacks on major figures. That viewpoint – proposed by the likes of Dominic Sandbrook – in itself is interesting: why do they do it and who does it benefit?
Today’s neo-liberals see everything in strictly financial terms and seek to impose that vision on the rest of us. It’s all about money, nothing else. But, as the old saying goes, they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Attempting to reprogram the mid-60s in that guise, while a tempting provocation, simply succeeds in smearing the past with the values of the present. Going back to the primary sources, you enter an entirely different world. During 1966, young people were creating an exciting, progressive mass culture in plain sight. They dared to dream. For a while, they got away with it, and that spirit remains inspirational.