I was born in the Sixties but don’t remember it like I do now. We had no TV in our house and the family records on our turntable were exclusively gospel and classical. My family were what I would now call Christian fundamentalists. Rock & roll was the Devil’s music. And the Beatles were evil. But, as I say, the sixties don’t feel the same now to what I remember.
But there is one day I remember which I can’t reinvent. That was the day Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo Lunar Module and wrote history. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The only thing we did that day at school was huddle around a black and white cathode-ray tube TV in class and watch the moon landing in awe.
Our teacher gave my class the rest of the day off. I’m not sure which part was most exciting – watching the Apollo land or getting home early without any school work. All I remember was feeling surreal as if the world had changed fundamentally somehow.
In 2019 I attended the exhibition Revolutions: Records and Rebels at the Melbourne Museum. Walking through this sixties time capsule with my family brought back memories of that July 1969 day watching the first moon walk prompted by the exhibit model Apollo Lunar Command module.
It was weird because I also felt a strong sense of nostalgia for years and places I had not actually lived through. The fashion of Carnaby Street, London. Twiggy’s dresses. John Lennon’s iconic glasses and the suit worn in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sprawling on fake grass in bean bags watching Jimi Hendrix belt out the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock on a video wall of multiple screens.
Why the shivers up and down my spine? I’m Australian – more influenced by the British empire in my upbringing than American cultural imperialism. We Aussies lived through the Sixties with the Easybeats and the Seekers. (I still have the sound loop of The Carnival Is Over embedded in my brain from that confounded teacher at Beverley Hills Primary School!)
Billie Thorpe and the Aztecs and Daddy Cool came later. But I didn’t really live through any of this so why do I emotionally identify with the Sixties in ways I don’t with other decades – even those decades I actually lived through!
In a commentary on the Sixties youth revolution, Jonothan Green makes some sense of my weird nostalgia. We live in the shadows of the Sixties.
“Of all the artificial constructs by which we delineate our immediate past, the Sixties have the greater purchase on the mass imagination. They stand, rightly or not, as the dominant myth of the modern era. That you might have been too old or too young to enjoy them – indeed that you might not have even been born – is of marginal importance. The great edifice casts its shadow and everything must seek its own light within it.”1
I ‘discovered’ the Sixties in the Seventies and Eighties as I migrated from teenage angst to twenties worldliness. But it wasn’t just me feeling emotional at this carnival of hip groove and cool funk.
My two daughters who were born three decades later were nostalgic for an age they had never known. They discovered the Sixties in the screens and sound waves transmitting from a distant time warp. Not too many other eras have this power over us.
The Sixties defined my generation (not just the Who talking about my generation) all the way down to the millennials, more than any other era in our times. It was the decade the baby boomers (born in the post war years from 1946 to through to the early Sixties) came of age.
The ‘me’ generation (the boomers invented ‘me’ and then passed the label to the millennials in case you’re wondering) was both a product of post war exuberance as much as an anti-establishment, counter revolution, Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze and Guattari) rebellion.
That celebration and rebellion is what bred the Sixties as we now know it. It’s what Myron Magnet calls the dream and the nightmare in his book on the Sixties of the same name.
Magnet traces our current epoch back to the Sixties and attributes the great divide of ‘the Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots’ to two revolutions (Magnet calls them liberations). They were political and personal liberations.
The first was political expressed as the civil rights movement. The second liberation was personal expressed in the sexual revolution and the Sixties counterculture. These revolutions were the dream.2
Looking back from 1993 when Magnet’s book was published, two decades later, Magnet’s conservative stance sees the dream’s failures as nightmare as the gap between ‘the Haves’ and ‘the Have-Nots’ grew even wider. From our further distance five decades on from the Sixties, we can see, without any conservatism required, that the gap is now exponential between the rich and the poor.
The Sixties revolutions are now entrenched on a global stage as the culture wars play out on such battle fields as political correctness, #me too, and #black lives matter to the counter culture’s sexual revolution, from feminism’s gender equality to LGBQTI+’s gender identities.
Polly Toynbee wrote for the iconic British underground mag, Oz, that originated in Sydney in 1963 and was edited by Richard Neville. Oz was alternative, provocative, part of the counterculture and became infamous for its obscenity trial in 1971.
More recently in the Guardian, Polly asks, Did we baby boomers bring about a revolution in the 60s or just usher in neoliberalism. “Out of all this revolution against ‘the system’ came a ‘me’ individualism that grew into neoliberalism. Early hippie ideals of silicon valley soon morphed into each-for-yourself, pay no taxes, screw all governments.”3
In a Rolling Stone interview in two parts in 1971, John Lennon looking back on the Sixties said nothing changed apart from “a lot of fag middle class kids with long, long hair walking around London in trendy clothes…Apart from that, nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same.”5
This is telling. Lennon, in his self indulgent, graceless style is saying we had a revolution where nothing really happened. Which is not surprising given what he sang about it with the Beatles.
After the Chuck Berry inspired, guitar screaming, full blown distortion intro, John’s vocals howl
You say you want a revolution Well, you know We all want to change the world You tell me that it's evolution Well, you know We all want to change the world Don't you know it's gonna be (all right) You say you'll change the constitution Well, you know We'd all love to change your head You tell me it's the institution Well, you know You better free your mind instead But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow Don't you know it's gonna be (all right)
Yeah, it’s going to be all right John because in the end all we need is… love, right?
Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination says something even more telling.
“Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right – either in the dean’s office or in our marriage or in the hospital room. And as long as the empire can keep the pretence alive that things are all right, there will be no grieving and no serious criticism.”Walter Brueggemann
Brueggemann is writing about the Egyptian empire and its pretentious ambition in setting its idols and empire up as God. Moses as a prophet confronted this power of empire. Empire building and ideology of idols is not exclusive to the Egyptians. The Sixties prophets and rebels saw this but ultimately failed by capitulating to the system.
Paul McCartney seemed less confused about what had happened in the Sixties when he said this.
“Somebody said to me, ‘But the Beatles were anti-materialistic.’ That’s a hugh myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now let’s write a swimming pool.’”6
Lennon’s ‘we were all dressed up’ quote became part of the mythology. All that happened is we were dressed up. Carnaby Street. In fashion and cool. ‘All dressed up’ but with no where to go.
The Sixties revolution was dressed up in the emperor’s clothes of peace and love. That was the revolution. No more war. Love ins. Give peace a chance. Which is really another way of saying it’s all about me. Not my neighbour. No wonder the ‘Have-Nots’ came out the worse for it. If there was a dream, it was already fading as everyone started to wake up.
“The dream is over. It’s just the same, only I’m thirty, and a lot of people have got long hair. That’s what it is, man, nothing happened except that we grew up, we did our thing— just like they were telling us.“ This is Lennon lamenting to Rolling Stone, February, 1971.
David Hepworth, in his book 1971: Never A Dull Moment, marks the end of the Sixties on the day Paul McCartney’s lawyers issued a writ to wind up The Beatles on New Years Eve 1970. Yes, technically this was a year late but it marks the day pop ended and the rock era began, according to Hepworth.7
It’s probably fitting because the era of love and revolution marked by The Beatles All You Need Is Love and Revolution ended with lawyers at ten paces arguing over money.
But of course, as we know, the Sixties never really quite ended. Rock was an extension of pop and so many Seventies bands were footnotes to The Beatles. 1971 was a seminal year but it was part of the trajectory of the sixties. Everything that happened after that came before in the Sixties.
“We were creating the twenty-first century in 1971” says David Bowie over the Changes song track in the doco 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. This documentary plays out the thesis in Hepworth’s book that 1971 was the most innovative year of the era through archival footage and interviews from that period. 1971 was a seminal year. But only because it was birthed in the Sixties.
When pop turned to rock in 1971, peace to war, and love to hate, we woke from dreams to nightmares in the cold light of day still not suspecting that we had sold our souls for silver and gold.
Larry Norman made a jibe at the Beatles on Only Visiting This Planet. “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.” Larry then wrote, Peace, Pollution, Revolution
The word is revolution, But no one’s fired the shot Each side has its battle plans with detailed counter plots The world is closely watching as we near the battle lines But if you’re truly wise you’ll keep you eyes on Palestine
But I think Barry McGuire sung it more prophetically in Eve of Destruction
The Eastern world, it is explodin' Violence flarin', bullets loadin' You're old enough to kill but not for votin' You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'? And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin' But you tell me over and over and over again my friend Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction
(This Dylanesque song was written by PF Sloan but McGuire made it famous as a hit in 1965.)
What happened in the Sixties? Quite a lot despite what Lennon said. Vietnam conscriptions, Martin Luther King’s dream of civil rights, the 1968 Paris student riots. Revolution was in the air. But from another angle, Lennon was right.
At the end of the decade, nothing had made as much of a difference as everyone had hoped. Things had got worse with Martin Luther King dead, body bags flying in from Vietnam, while the working class grew poor.
And why? Because despite what the songs said, we need more than just peace and love to start a revolution. We need salvation. And we need each other. But mostly, we need to turn from our idols of silver and gold.
- GREEN, JONATHON. “All Dressed Up: The Sixties ‘Youth Revolution’ in Retrospect.” <i>Twentieth Century Architecture</i>, no. 6, 2002, pp. 10–16. <i>JSTOR</i>, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41859186. Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.
- The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (1993) by Myron Magnet. See review https://newcriterion.com/issues/1993/4/the-sixties-revolution-its-legacy
- Rolling Stone, 4 February 1971
- Alan B. Krueger, Rockonomics: What the Music Industry Can Teach Us About Economics (and Our Future), John Murray, Great Britain 2019, p1
- David Hepworth, 1971: Neve A Dull Moment, Penguin Random House, London, 2016 p1
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As I get older (boy, am I getting older!) I wonder more about if our generation will see the messiah come to earth!!! Or is it going to be yet another generation who anticipates, then dies. Reminds me of Jewish kids who ask their fathers the age-old question: When am I getting a bike, dad? And those sagacious fathers’ quip: When the Messiah comes, son! When the messiah comes!
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Good essay and well written.
It is strange at times to look back on life and the times you live through and be amazed at how things have changed. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Sadly the changes in recent years are not helpful to building family or community as it seems everything old needs to be torn down and replaced with something else. I don’t understand how the agitators of change can think that a superficial world devoid of ‘real’ human interaction can be better than what came before particulary when our children are taught to hate whatever is the current thing to hate.
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