1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded by Jon Savage (Faber & Faber, 2015)

1966“It’s pretty obvious that contemporary music reflects contemporary life. And vice versa” wrote Tony Hall in Record Mirror in 1966. What is taken for granted now needed to be spelled out then.

Nevertheless, there are still precious few writers who able to contextualize music as expertly as Jon Savage.

When writing about Punk in 2004’s ‘England’s Dreaming’, Savage was able to draw directly from his own experiences but, as he was just 13 years old in the Summer of 1966, he is not able to rely solely on first-hand knowledge for this book. The 55 pages of source references illustrate the substantial research that lies behind this authoritative and illuminating study.

I was just 8 years old in that year so I remember even less than he does but I do recall the impact of some TV shows (e.g. Batman, The Monkees, Time Tunnel etc.) and music like The Beatles, the Motown acts and Dusty Springfield. But as far as historical events go, only England winning the soccer world cup sticks in the memory.

Most articles about the sixties paint a superficial and idealised portrait of swinging London, sexual liberation and the birth of the Woodstock generation. Savage goes deeper and reveals the darker aspects of this era and shows that it has definite parallels with the world we inhabit today.

Far from being a time of hedonism and freedom, this was a year lived under the shadow of the atom bomb and the cold war. In addition, the black civil rights movement, growing opposition to the Vietnam war, the demand for women’s liberation and the struggle for gay rights were just some of the causes that led to politicization of the youth both in America and in the UK. Add LSD to this heady cocktail and it’s easy to understand why this year was so musically explosive and accounts for how “1966 began in pop and ended with rock”.

jonAs Savage points out, the increased confidence and radicalism of mid-sixties teens meant that they were no longer prepared to be dismissed as passive consumers. Prior to this, they were forced to endure plastic pop tailored towards what Savage succinctly brands as “emotion as commerce, youth as product”. A lot of music was still primarily about image and sales but the climate was changing rapidly and a rejection of materialist values was becoming impossible to ignore.

In his introduction, Savage explains why he chose this specific year: “I was attracted to 1966 because of the music and what I hear in it: ambition, acceleration and compression”.

This is why his focus is primarily on the 45 rpm, 7″ records and he builds the 12 chapters around one key single for each month . The diversity of the tracks he selects give an indication of the wide-ranging scope of the book. They are:
January: The Uglys – A Quiet Explosion
February: The Rolling Stones – 19th Nervous Breakdown
March : Ssgt Barry Sadler – The Ballad Of The Green Berets
April: The Dovers – The Third Eye
May: Norma Tanega – Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog
June: The Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror
July: Wilson Pickett – Land Of 1000 Dances
August: Joe Meek – Do You Come Here Often?
September: Love – 7 And 7 Is
October: New Vaudeville Band – Winchester Cathedral
November: The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
December: The Small Faces – My Mind’s Eye

One of the enjoyable aspects of the book lies in the pinpoint precision of the descriptions of some of the key artists. For instance Savage depicts The Walker Brothers as “melodramatic, Spectorian balladeers emoting from behind a wall of long hair” and notes the way Bob Dylan’s songs “oscillated between industrial-strength vitriol and visonary explorations of a new world”.

His analysis goes deeper too and draws parallels that help the reader to understand the way artists both reflected and/or stood against the mood of the times. Take for example his observation that “The Velvet Underground might have reflected the emerging drug culture but they sang about the wrong drugs” or his insight into the way The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds held onto the primacy of innocence at the same time as it was in danger of being lost for ever”.

This enables you to understand just how radical a track like The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was and why The Yardbirds ‘Happening Ten Years Time Ago’ was regarded as a failed attempt to reflect the emerging Psychedelic rock sound.

In his detailed study, Savage is not looking back through rose-tinted spectacles. For example, at point he writes that “Long hair and androgyny did not preclude misogyny in the mid-1960s”.

The absence of a conclusion means that readers are left to draw their own conclusions but the parallels to today socio-political climate are fairly obvious. Now, as in then, the US Republican party is in power, global governments consistently stifle basic human rights, the New Right is on the rise, the fear of a nuclear catastrophe increases by the day, police malpractice and corruption continues while discrimination on the grounds of gender and race remains the norm.

Far from being a gentle, nostalgic trip down memory lane, this rich and insightful book identifies that the radical collective energy of 1966 is just as necessary now as it was then. If only the music was as good!