1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded
By John Savage
Faber & Faber – £20.00
From Lou Reed and the influential trajectory of The Velvet Underground to Dusty Springfield; from LSD in all its connotations to how The Beatles changed the world (and to a certain degree, still are); from the threat of all out nuclear war and the formation of CND to The Yardbirds to naturally, England winning the World Cup; 1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded makes absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in rock’n’roll – as it once was but shall never be again – and (a fundamentally) British culture that at the time, was superlative, if not sublime in its design.
As one of my favourite writers and commentators on modern day music, Jon Savage (whose excellent England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock I reviewed for The Asbury Park Press) writes in the book’s Introduction: ”It was a time of enormous ambition and serious engagement. Music was no longer commenting on life but had become indivisible from life. It had become the focus not just of youth consumerism but a way of seeing, the prism through which the world was interpreted. ‘This isn’t for me’: that simple, defiant cry, delivered by John Lennon, the most famous young person on the planet, echoed throughout 1966. Success wasn’t the be-all and end-all; it was possible to conceive of an alternative future, to believe that things could be different, that people could be free.”
”That people could be free,” unlike today of course, where society, whether by way of societal infrastructure and/or plain expectation, social media or mere economics, has become more shackled than ever before.
Indeed, roll over Jean-Jacques Rousseau and tell David Cameron the news, for as a nation, Britain is becoming increasingly more stifled by the day; unlike the rather explosive year in question, which, throughout these 547 pages (excluding Introduction, Discography, Sources and Index) has been captured, dissected and delivered in such a way that is both educational and entertaining.
Written in chronological month order – with the opening of each chapter stipulated with a set of relative black and white photographs – Savage takes on a veritable journey through a period time that was idiosyncratically innocent, yet nevertheless, breathtakingly vibrant, colourful and some might say, teetering on a precipice of profound new thinking.
Just one (of countless) examples being Bob Dylan, LSD and The Beatles: ”[…] as part of his move away from overt social and political comment, he recorded several news songs that seemed to reflect the hallucinogenic experience. One of them hinted at synaesthesia, music as a cosmic force. ‘Take me for a trip/Upon your magic swirling ship,’ Dylan sang on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ ‘My senses have been stripped/And I can’t feel to grip.’
In late 1964, Dylan turned The Beatles on to marijuana at the end of their first major US tour. By their unanimous account, it was an epiphany. From then on the group began to experiment with sound: you can hear the result in subsequently recorded songs like ‘What You’re Doing,’ ‘I Feel Fine,’ with its feedback opening, and the droning ‘Ticket To Ride.’ By the time that The Beatles were making the film Help! They were – in John Lennon’s words – ‘smoking marijuana for breakfast’ (‘April’).
Other than writing about what many readers might expect such as The Beatles, The Stones and Dylan etc, Savage also touches on the likes of the aforementioned Dusty Springfield, herself, a more than contradictory character: In all, Dusty was a complex, fascinating figure, oscillating between confidence and deep shyness, sharp wit and total commitment to her singing. While her appearance was as solidly armoured as The Supremes’, her spirit was constantly mobile, the fluttering of her hands giving away the tensions and the driven ambition beneath the surface. ‘I want to sing songs that are real, human, with deep emotional appeal,’ she told an American interviewer in 1964, ‘this is my hard fight.”’
Is it just such ‘fight’ that is so sorely lacking amid the wretched Celebrity Culture of today (to which there unfortunately seems no end in sight)?
Either way, 1966 is a mesmerising and intrinsically valuable read.
And it is so for a number reasons, primarily that of the subject matter itself; simply because 1966 ”[…] was a year when audacious ideas and experiments were at a premium in the mass market and in youth culture, with a corresponding backlash from those for whom the rate of change was too quick. The resulting tension was terrific. 1966 was the restless peak, the year when the decade exploded.”