The 1960s and early 1970s has always been an era of fascination and enthrallment for me. As a child my parents would play the thought-provoking and brilliant music of artists like The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and others. I have always been spellbound by the writing, both in terms of novels and music, and am forever drawn to the fashion and lifestyle of the era. In short, as many have put it, I was born in the wrong generation.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970, which I visited last week and is currently visit-able at the V&A, dedicates itself to the era I so adore. To the music, the writing, the fashion, the lifestyle, and most importantly, the revolution of the 1960s. The fight for freedom in essentially every aspect of human life, the fight for freedom of sexuality, freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, freedom from war, freedom of expression… freedom. “Swinging London” led this beautiful revolution, growing discontent with the status quo manifesting itself in new writing, political activism, music, art, fashion and satire. The imagining of new worlds, Oscar Wilde writing in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that “progress is the realisation of Utopias”.
Musicians such as the Beatles, the Who, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, photographers such as David Bailey, writers like Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac. These people are icons of the era, and along with so many others they revolutionised our world. Music became the most vital form of communication and identification, the central theme of most literature and music reflecting the multi-faceted fight for diversity and freedom. People began to feel music in a way which wasn’t possible before.
Psychedelics, like LSD (which was only discovered in 1943), allowed us to access an entirely new dimension to human thought, making our mundane world sublime, allowing people to break the mould, break from conformity and becoming their own. Bob Dylan famously said “all I can do is be me, whoever that is”, and to me that really encompasses the feeling of the 1960s: unity and freedom to be whomever you wanted to be, with whatever views you believed in.
“Our culture, our art, our music, our books, our posters, our clothing… it’s all one message – the message is freedom.” John Sinclair
Revolution was not refined to the arts alone, oh no. Commerce, for one, grew: international travel became common place, the ‘mad men’ of advertising, as they were dubbed in the late 1950s, shaped our understanding and relationships with invention and growing industry. The film industry also went above and beyond the conventions of Hollywood, content and concepts becoming a lot more abstract, especially visually, as can be seen with some of the Beatles’s later films, such as Magical Mystery Tour. We made some of the biggest revolutionary strides in every aspect of society in the 1960s. And perhaps the biggest, although the least successful in many ways, was the quest for peace.France, China, America, Vietnam. Conflict was widespread, and the ability to express new ideas allowed the people to oppose war in a way they hadn’t been able to before. Thanks to television, for the first time young people were seeing history made before it could be censored by their elders. There was suddenly an understanding of the horrors of war, of what it meant to send young men of the next generation, mainly, to their deaths. A sense of unity grew, the Moon Landing in 1969 showing that human ingenuity could achieve the seemingly impossible, and this was reflected in the non violent fight for peace, which emerged in the late 1960s.
“I am a world citizen. All human history is mine. My roots cover the earth. I believe we should know each other. After all, our lives are all connected.” Jim Haynes
These demonstrations for peace, I believe, are truly embodied by the mystical, “mythical” event that was Woodstock 1967. Although it was only expected to draw in 50,000 people, the festival drew over 1 million. Incredible and (I know I’ve said it a lot, but) revolutionary artists performed, like The Who, Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix, uniting the audience in something so beautiful. Hendrix’s rendition of Star Spangled Banner was described as “the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and… probably the single greatest moment of the Sixties”, his use of feedback and distortion to emulate the war-like sounds of rockets and bombs transforming music and our ability to relate to war.Coming out of this wonderful exhibition, I felt inspired, and not just to go home and put on my Beatles and Who records. The message of the 1960s, that of progression and revolution, has not, and will never die out. We can go on living with our eyes closed, “misunderstanding all (we) see”, but the fact is, the words of John Lennon’s Imagine remain pertinent today. The need for revolution remains: gender equality, an end to aimless death. Peace is patriotic. And we all have a responsibility to unite together in our diversity, in our eccentricities. In our humanity.
When you make progress, you can’t just sit down and think it’s over. You must pursue it.
Hang in there.