Hereunder, for critical purposes, is an excerpt from Ian MacDonald's fine book about the Beatles. I think this is a good account of the 1960s, emphasising that music was the most significant part of the culture of that decade. He does ramble a bit at the and, and I think he's a bit harsh on the music of the subsequent decades. But I still like this essay.
Revolution in the Head
Introduction: Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade
"If you want to know about the Sixties, play the music of The Beatles."
The young make their own fun whatever time and place they’re in, the natural dynamism of youth serving to heighten its surroundings. Excited by their own passing blends of music and fashion, teenagers in every generation since 1955 have believed that theirs was a uniquely special time. Yet the Sixties were special to an age-range far broader than any period before or since. The spirit of that era disseminated itself across generations, suffusing the Western world with a sense of rejuvenating freedom comparable to the joy of being let out of school early on a sunny afternoon. Though ultimately the product of influences deeper than pop, the Sixties’ soaring optimism was ideally expressed by it, and nowhere more perfectly than in the music of The Beatles. Certainly those years would have been similar in tone and direction had they not existed; yet so vital was the charge emitted by their music and so vividly did it reflect and illuminate its time that, without it, the irreverently radiant Sixties atmosphere, described by Liverpool poet Brian Patten as like ‘a fizzly electrical storm’, might hardly have sparked at all.
So obviously dazzling was The Beatles’ achievement that few have questioned it. Agreement on them is all but universal: they were far and away the best-ever pop group and their music enriched the lives of millions. Yet while The Beatles have passed into the pantheon of permanent regard, the Sixties, with which they were intimately linked, are now an ideological battleground upon which there is no agreement at all. Seen as everything from the foundation of modern liberty to the primary cause of present chaos, this carefree age - in which nothing was hidden and all caution and modesty were cast to the wind - has become the most obscure period of our century, mythologised into a mirage of contradictions: a disappearing decade. Detached from this revaluation, the records of The Beatles and their contemporaries continue to ring out blithely from radio stations while the period that gave birth to them is fought over in every other niche of the media. But if The Beatles and the Sixties are so closely related, they must surely have reflected each other’s ambiguities. And if they did, how can the group’s music evade the charges now being made against the times which it so perfectly mirrored?
One of the earliest repudiators of the Sixties was John Lennon. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1970, he dismissed the preceding years of social upheaval and countercultural revolt as little more than a clothes show: ‘Everyone dressed up but nothing changed.’ To Lennon, then rendered austere by Janov’s ‘primal therapy’,1 both the Sixties and The Beatles seemed to have been divorced from reality: middle-class daydreams funded on unprecedented affluence and fueled by delusive drugs. Now, insisted the therapised and detoxified ex-Beatle, the Dream was Over. Sporting dungarees, plimsolls, and a purposeful crew-cut, he was graphically dressed to clean up the mess. Within a year, he had graduated to revolutionary black leather jacket, beret, and Mao badge. Eighteen months later, he was seen reeling drunk in a Los Angeles restaurant with a sanitary towel on his head. And so the fashion parade - if that was what it was - went on.
The punk rebels of 1976-8 saw the Sixties in much the same way, their stripped-down, furious music echoing the naked truth aesthetic of Lennon’s 1970 ‘primal’ album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. To them, the preceding decade had been a silly self-indulgence followed by a six-year hangover of complacent grandiloquence which had palliated the energy of pop culture. ‘Horrid hippies’, the self-styled Beautiful People with their vague ideals and LSD-decelerated minds, were the problem; speed, sarcasm, and deliberate ugliness the solution. (Dress-code: spiked hair, ripped T-shirts, safety-pins through the face.) By the early Eighties, the Sixties had declined into a subject of cynical indifference to the denizens of Margaret Thatcher’s deregulated anti-society, simultaneously turning into a standard target of left-wing ‘alternative’ comedy - reviled from both sides. A figure of futility, the burlesque hippie was an unkempt and pathetic dreamer, body unwashed and mind blown by drugs. Yet, at the same time, this object of scorn seemed to be a scapegoat for some obscure sense of loss. It was considered a truism that the Sixties had been an empty style-display (a concept the Eighties had little trouble grasping); but, if the ambitions of the Sixties generation had really been so irrelevant and impractical, why such resentment at its supposed failure to realise them?
At any rate, the hippies seemed to have got something right: during the second half of the Eighties, bored with the mechanical products of so much contemporary pop, a new generation seized on the passionately imaginative music of the Sixties, elevating to cult status the records of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Byrds, Led Zeppelin, and The Velvet Underground. The only comparable Eighties artist, Prince, digressed into a brief Beatles phase with a pastiche of their LSD period in his album Around the World in a Day. More than a few of his peers admitted that they not only revered the sounds of the Sixties but approved the ideals associated with them. Persisting into the late Eighties, this style-rehabilitation of the Disappearing Decade was enthusiastically embraced in the Acid House dance idiom of the ‘second summer of love’ with its psychedelic fashions, LSD-reviving ‘raves’, and eclectic sampling of Sixties soul classics - a mood-altered mode which has hardly been out of fashion since owing to the omnipresent influence of sense-amplifying drugs like Ecstasy.
At the beginning of the Nineties, however, the ‘retro’ vogueishness of the Sixties temporarily faded as that era came under attack from a right-wing political culture in search of something to blame for the socio-economic chaos it had created in the Eighties. Far from failing, claimed these critics, the Sixties’ revolution had succeeded only too well. The rising rates of assault, rape, robbery, drug-abuse, divorce, and abortion were all the fault of the permissive society supposedly fomented by left-wing subversives in the Sixties. (Likewise the parallel declines in industrial and academic performance, respect for authority, and general attention-span.) In America, young conservatives accused their parental generation - the ‘Baby Boomers’ born in the late Forties - of creating the Nineties’ victim/dependency culture of casual violence, trash consumerism, and semi-literate Political Correctness. Sixties anti-institutionalism had, they claimed, wrecked the nation’s education system and plundered its social security coffers, leaving a national deficit which today’s young will spend their lives paying off (supposing they can find jobs). As for the Sixties’ sexual revolution, it merely produced a flood of pornography and a high divorce/low legitimacy underclass of sullenly unsocialised and unemployable youth. To these critics, everything wrong with modern America was the fault of the irresponsible free-lunch hedonists who ‘liberated’ the Woodstock Festival instead of standing dutifully in line for tickets.
Rising to the bait, the Boomers launched a counterattack, claiming au contraire that most of the civic breakdown in Britain and America after the early Eighties was caused by the socially ruinous tax-phobia of the Right. Reagan, they pointed out, may not have agreed in so many words with Thatcher’s claim that ‘There is no such thing as society’,1 but his monetarism said the same in fiscal language. As for Woodstock, it was, in venture capital terms, indubitably a shambles, yet one untypical of the West Coast counterculture, which, during the late Sixties and early Seventies, so successfully operated its own press, merchandising, and distribution networks that right-wing libertarian Frank Zappa felt obliged to remind hippie entrepreneurs that an alternative economy would no more effect structural change than declining to vote. Far from changing the system from within, underground radicals had been disposed to ignore mainstream society altogether, and could hardly be blamed for expensive welfare programmes which not they but the orthodox majority voted for. Nor could Woodstock (ran the case for the defence) be accounted for within the dully materialistic framework of the Nineties. Much of what happened in the Sixties had been spiritual in impulse, the free festivals being expressions of a shared feeling intrinsic to the times in which they took place. Moreover huge sections of society effectively disfranchised before the Sixties had, as a direct result of the decade’s widespread change in attitudes, found their voices and - at last - a share of social justice.
The fact that the debate continues to rumble on is in itself a tribute to the momentousness of the Sixties. But if blaming the shameless greed of the Reagan-Thatcher era on the sociable and morally concerned We Generation is transparently silly, it would be just as fatuous to pretend that the Sixties did not harbour its own complement of idiots, demagogues, and outright criminals. Haight-Ashbury, a quiet bohemian haven till the invention of the hippie movement at the Trips Festival in January 1966, lasted barely two more years before degenerating into a methedrine/heroin ghetto. Few hippie communes survived into the Seventies without becoming cults of one kind or another. During the confrontations of 1968-70, almost as many ‘freaks’ wilfully provoked the police as were gratuitously brutalised by rioting ‘pigs’. Much countercultural rhetoric - notably its airy notion of a money-free, share-all society (‘post-scarcity anarchism’) - was adolescent nonsense. Many underground leaders were either sociopaths in love with disruption for its own sake or self-dramatising opportunists on their way to careers in Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Yet, in spite of all this, the sense then of being on the verge of a breakthrough into a different kind of society was vivid and widely felt. Attitudes formed in this potent atmosphere were lasting, the glimpse of something better, however elusive, permanently changing the outlooks of millions. Why?
To understand the Sixties, two overriding principles need to be considered. First, what went on then was by no means homogeneous. Many separate trends were working in different phases of development at the same time, much of the decade’s contradictory character stemming from unexpected interactions between them. Second, the Sixties were a reaction to the Fifties - which is to say that passing judgement on the Sixties without some idea of what provoked them is tantamount to forbidding them a fair trial. While a strong case can be made for tracing today’s falling standards to the Sixties’ anti-élitism, it would be as prejudicial to contend that this impulse was without cause as to blame it on any one social group at large in that era.
The Fifties may have been relatively snug for the generation which had endured the Second World War, but their teenage children saw the period as a stifling ‘drag’ against which they felt obliged to kick, in a desultory way, with rock-and-roll. While theirs was at best a flirtation with freedom, their older siblings - for whom the Fifties were a ‘nightmare decade’1 of Cold War paranoia and sinister power without moral legitimacy - posed a more serious challenge to the status quo. In Britain, it was the time of the Angry Young Men, in America of the Beat Generation. Isolated rebels against social and intellectual restriction, the Angry Young Men came and went between the Suez fiasco and Macmillan’s boom of the late Fifties. The Beats, though, more than mere heretics of the Eisenhower era, were a real foretaste of a revolutionary future.
Often assumed to be a musical reference, the Beat Generation’s name in reality referred to a sense of being roughed up by life and flung into the wasteland margins of a materialistic civilisation. Carrying apocalyptic overtones, the Beat ‘condition’, as defined by its leading voice Jack Kerouac,2 involved a state of being stripped of social insulation and endowed with epiphanic clarity as a result. The mostly middle-class Beats were visionary hobos alienated from society: ‘on the road’, both literally and metaphorically. American cousins of the Existentialists - whose enigmatic chic drew Lennon and McCartney to Paris in 1961 and, in the form of Germany’s ‘Exis’, fascinated them in Hamburg - they were less preoccupied with the integrity of the self than with transcending personal limits, reaching out to something beyond the range of everyday experience. Since they did not know precisely where they were going, they defined themselves instead by what they were for and against. They were against soul-numbing materialism (‘Moneytheism’); for imagination, self-expression, Zen. Against society’s approved depressants (alcohol, barbiturates); for outlawed stimulants like marijuana, amphetamines, and mescaline. Against rationalism, repression, racism; for poetry, free sex, jazz. Seeking self-realisation through ‘hipness’ and paradox, the Beats were the authentic religious voice of the Atomic Age. As such, they were formatively influential on the Sixties counterculture in California and New York, their sensibility reaching Britain through the freewheeling vernacular verse of the Liverpool poets.1
As late products of the spiritual crisis Western civilisation has been undergoing since the inception of the scientific outlook, the Beats were part of a venerable historical succession. The ‘death of God’, with its concomitant loss of both a moral reference-point and our ancient faith in personal immortality, began percolating down into society from its origins among rationalist scholars around four hundred years ago. As its influence spread, altering every sort of assumption and subtly retuning human relations, science’s analytical attitude and technological products came to be perceived as a threat to the realm of the imagination, provoking regular cultural revolts: the late 18th-century Sturm und Drang and Gothic movements, the 19th-century Romantics and Impressionists, the Symbolists and Surrealists of the 20th century. At the same time, the loss of a transcendent moral index prompted artists to probe the frontiers of personal ethics, rolling back the limits of acceptable behaviour and stressing the authenticity of individual experience over dogma handed down from the past or the ruling class. Received wisdom, traditional values and structures, everything that had once given life form and stability - all were challenged. The Beats were merely another psychic ripple from the rock of materialism dropped into the placid theocratic pond of the Western mind by the early scientists of the late 16th century - as, indeed, were the Sixties, although ‘ripple’ hardly does justice to their convulsive cross-currents of inner and outer unrest.
As a rebellion of free essence against the restraints of outmoded form, the Sixties began with a flood of youthful energy bursting through the psychic dam of the Fifties.1 The driving force of this rebellion resided in The Beatles in their capacity - then suspected by no one, least of all themselves - as ‘unacknowledged legislators of populist revolt’.2 Born in Liverpool in the early Forties, John Lennon, Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr), Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were late arrivals in the first generation of British ‘teenagers’ (a sociological, concept coined around 1930 and later adopted by advertisers in recognition of the then-novel spending-power of the post-war young). In America, a so-called ‘generation gap’ had been heralded in the early Fifties by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and screen stars like Dean and Brando. In Britain, this disjuncture became apparent half-way through the decade with the simultaneous appearances of rock-and-roll, television, Look Back in Anger, and the Suez crisis (the first crack in the façade of the establishment since 1945). Any domestic film of the period will convey the genteel, class-segregated staidness of British society at that time. The braying upper-class voices on newsreels, the odour of unearned privilege in parliament and the courts, the tired nostalgia for the war, all conspired to breed unrest among the young. Lennon, in particular, loathed the Fifties’ stiff and pompous soullessness, revelling in the surreal satirical attacks on it by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, et al., in BBC radio’s The Goon Show. For him, as for the other Beatles, the arrival of Elvis Presley turned the key. (‘Rock-and-roll was real. Everything else was unreal.’) Yet, within three years, the Conservatives had been re-elected on the back of Macmillan’s ‘never-had-it-so-good’ business boom, while the rock-and-roll rebellion had collapsed with most of its leading figures hors de combat.1
With economic contentment in Britain and America at the turn of the Sixties, there seemed no reason to suppose that the youth disquiet of the mid-Fifties would be resurrected. In the USA, the ‘kids’ were diverted by cars, beach movies, bobbysox heart-throbs, and surf music. In Britain, cheap Vespas and Lambrettas offered youth transport and prestige symbols, jive-halls and espresso bars catered for surplus adolescent energy, and pop idled by on a turnover of skiffle, trad, and clean-faced ‘teen idols’ mass-produced in Denmark Street or imported by quota from America. Prosperity had even lulled the fight out of the Angry Young Men, former firebrands John Osborne and Arnold Wesker muttering peevishly that there were ‘no great causes left’. Yet appearances were deceptive. Beneath the wiped and polished surface of British culture around 1960 lay a festering mess of sexual ignorance, prejudice, and repression only slighdy ameliorated since the 19th century. Erotic experience was mostly confined to the dutiful discontent of marriage, while women were so routinely belittled that they barely noticed it, obediently accepting demeaning fashions and failing to demur with the prevalent male view of rape as something every female secretly wanted.2 In this slow-thinking world, as yet unaccelerated by television, gentle neighbourliness co-existed with half-conscious prejudices against outsiders - Jews, blacks, ‘queers’ - and complacently censorious ideas of what was proper and decent. National Service was still in force and conformism was universal. Immensely smug, the condescension of the ruling class was reproduced on each social stratum beneath it, all males below one’s own level being addressed by their surnames as if the whole country was in the army. Britain was stiff with a psychic tension which was bound, sooner or later, to explode.
Linked with the deferential quietude that tranquillised the UK at the outset of the Sixties was an embarrassed unco-ordination of mind and body. Even a basic sense of rhythm was rare, as anyone who witnessed TV shows like Six-Five-Special and Juke Box Jury will recall. (Ninety-five per cent of any audience - which in those days meant whites only - clapped doggedly on the on-beat.) While the heavy-petting and high-fiving of today’s sportsmen is barely less mechanical, the rigid inhibition of early Sixties English cricketers, beside the relaxed naturalness of touring players from the West Indies, was positively comic. Much the same was true of the USA. Arriving there in 1964, The Beatles were amazed to discover how ‘unhip’ young white Americans were. A generation raised on crew-cuts, teeth-braces, hot rods, and coca-cola knew nothing of blues or R&B and had forgotten the rock-and-roll which had excited their elder brothers and sisters only five years earlier.
In this docile context, one of the most powerful currents to animate the Sixties was that of black emancipation. Embodied politically in Africa’s drive to independence and the march of the civil rights movement in America, its most immediate impact on white culture was made through music, beginning with the blues, rock-and-roll, and rhythm-and-blues records which, entering Liverpool via its harbour-city import shops and the US airbase at RAF Burtonwood,1 inspired The Beatles. The influence on them of black singers, instrumentalists, songwriters, and producers was, as they never failed to admit in their interviews, fundamental to their early career. Vocal stylings which white audiences in the USA later heard as foreign, harmonic progressions mistaken by classical critics for Mahler - these were as often as not adapted by Lennon and McCartney from doo-wop discs or Tamla Motown2 records (notably those written and lead-sung by William ‘Smokey’ Robinson). Reviving the Fifties’ rock-and-roll rebellion in the mid-Sixties with cover versions of records by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Larry Williams, and The Isley Brothers, The Beatles acted as a major conduit of black energy, style, and feeling into white culture, helping to restore it to its undernourished senses and thereby forwarding the ‘permissive’ revolution in sexual attitudes.
If a black legacy bulked large in The Beatles’ heritage, everything that passed through their writing and arranging process was so creatively reshaped that few other artists of any background ever came close to matching them. Though they were embarrassed to perform their rock-and-roll and R&B covers in America (especially in front of black audiences), their hard seasons in Hamburg’s dive-bars during 1960-62 put enough toughness and attack into their act to place them on an equal footing with any pop music then performed live in the USA. Moreover they knew exactly how good they were as songwriters, conceding to no one, including their erstwhile American heroes. While their early lyrics were simplistic by the standards of Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Eddie Cochran, Leiber and Stoller, and the teams associated with New York’s Brill Building, The Beatles far outstripped their rivals in melodic and harmonic invention, baffling seasoned professionals with their surprising chord sequences.
More than mere novelty, such breezy unorthodoxy was one of the key characteristics of the Sixties. Self-made as musicians, Lennon and McCartney had a wry disregard for education and training, shunning technical knowledge in the fear that it would kill their spontaneity and tame them into sounding like everyone else. In this attitude they were at one with most young British songwriters of the period, the work of Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Syd Barrett, Roy Wood, and The Incredible String Band being likewise shaped by a cultivated element of self-surprise based on a lack of any ingrained sense of what ought to come next. Like Irving Berlin and Noel Coward, Lennon and McCartney were not only unable to read music, but firmly declined to learn.1 Writing, to begin with, mainly on guitars, they brought unpredictable twists to their tunes by shifting chord-positions in unusual and often random ways, and pushing their lines in unexpected directions by harmonising as they went along in fourths and fifths rather than in conventional thirds.1 In short, they had no preconceptions about the next chord, an openness which they consciously exploited and which played a major role in some of their most commercially successful songs (e.g.,  I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND)2 Nor was their sense of form any less personal, manifesting in the irregular phrases and unorthodox bar-groups which make even The Beatles’ earliest work constantly surprising.3 Knowing that their music’s lack of institutional structure was chiefly what made it so alive and authentic, they kept it from becoming stale by continually investigating new methods and concepts: beginning and ending songs in the ‘wrong’ key, employing modal, pentatonic, and Indian scales, incorporating studio-effects and exotic instruments, and shuffling rhythms and idioms with a unique versatility. Forever seeking new stimuli, they experimented with everything from tape-loops to drugs and chance procedures borrowed from the intellectual avant-garde. And, as if this were not enough, all three songwriting Beatles had very different ways of composing which, together, lent their output an even greater richness and unpredictability.
While the group’s musical unorthodoxy quickly attracted the attention of classical critics, the latter’s failure to spot that the Lennon-McCartney partnership contained two separate composers was a revealing blunder, if an understandable one.1 After all, if the idea that one could write and play one’s own music was in itself startling in 1962-3, the notion that a songwriting team might consist, not of a composer and a lyricist, but of two independent writer/performers, was unheard of. (That The Beatles included a third writer/performer, capable of what Frank Sinatra has called ‘the greatest love-song of the last fifty years’, testifies to their rare depth of talent.)2
In fact, the differences in musical style between Lennon and McCartney were, from the beginning, quite distinct. Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon’s melodies tend to move up and down as little as possible, weaving deviously through their harmonies in chains of repeated notes ( HELP!,  TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS,  I’M ONLY SLEEPING), two-note oscillations on minimal intervals ( I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER,  A HARD DAY S NIGHT,  I AM THE WALRUS), or reiterated phrases ( I FEEL FINE,  RAIN,  LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS). Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences of speech, colouring his lyrics with bluesy tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own. McCartney’s lines, by contrast, display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in scalar steps and wide intervals, often encompassing more than an octave. His is the expression of a natural melodist, a creator of tunes capable of existing apart from their harmony - whereas Lennon’s lines tend to be allusive, moody affairs which make sense only when accompanied (particularly the more chromatic creations of his later style). In other words, while the tunes of both are marked by an unusual incidence of non-chordal notes, McCartney’s method is, in terms of intervals, ‘vertical’ (melodic, consonant), and Lennon’s ‘horizontal’ (harmonic, dissonant).
In a less narrowly structural sense, the two represented a classic clash between truth and beauty. Seeing music as a vehicle of thought and feeling, Lennon stressed expression at the expense of formal elegance, which held no interest or value for him per se. Intuitive, he cared little for technique and nothing for the rules, which he would go out of his way to break. As a result, while sometimes obsessive and crabbed, his music rarely betrays itself and hardly ever strays unintentionally into bad taste. On the other hand, McCartney, by nature drawn to music’s formal aspects yet wholly untutored, produced technically ‘finished’ work almost entirely by instinct, his harmonic judgement based mainly on perfect pitch and an acute pair of ears.1 However, while his music, at its best, is the very opposite of inexpressive, he could, entranced by his own fluency, all too easily be distracted from meaning, producing glib prettiness, vapid exercises in style, and excruciating lapses of taste.2
Brought together by their common love of rock-and-roll, Lennon and McCartney were psychologically cemented by the harsh coincidence of losing their mothers in their early teens. But though they never lost their respect for each other’s talent, their temperaments and egos soon caused them to diverge as songwriters, displacing genuine fifty-fifty collaboration. For most of their career, their partnership was a formal arrangement, each writing the lion’s share of his own songs before bringing the results to be checked, and where necessary altered or added to, by the other. That said, their close creative proximity generated the electric atmosphere of competitive rivalry which was the secret of The Beatles’ extraordinary ability to better themselves; and where they did collaborate on an equal basis the results were nearly always remarkable, ascending on the tension between their contrasting personalities and gifts.
The Beatles’ appearance in 1962-3 coincided with the fall of Conservatism in Sixties Britain. Caught between its election pledges and a balance of payments crisis, Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964 was forced to raise income tax (including the swingeing rates for high earners which George Harrison later railed against in  TAXMAN). Fortunately buoyancy in the property market, aided by full employment, quickly created a youth-led consumer boom. Spearheaded by The Beatles, the two-year ‘British Invasion’ of the American top ten established the UK as the centre of the pop world with a flowering of talent matched nowhere else before or since. As British Pop Art and Op Art became the talk of the gallery world, a new generation of fashion designers, models, and photographers followed Mary Quant’s lead in creating the boutique culture of Swinging London to which international film-makers flocked in the hope of siphoning off some of the associated excitement into their pictures. Long-standing class barriers collapsed overnight as northern and cockney accents penetrated the hitherto exclusively Oxbridge domains of television, advertising, and public relations. Hair lengthened, skirts shortened, and the sun came out over a Britain rejuvenated, alert, and determined to have the best of good times.1
Yet while change made itself felt across the board, many of its effects were local or ambiguous. The sexual repression of the past all but vanished from the world of the newly classless metropolitan young, but it took another decade to begin to disappear elsewhere; and while censorship was rolled back, homosexuality legalised, and women given the benefit of the pill and abortion on demand, the loosening of over-restrictive divorce laws inevitably created the conditions for the replacement of marriage by ‘relationships’ in the Seventies and a widespread collapse of the nuclear family during the Eighties. Immediate sexual gratification became the ideal of a society in which church-going was falling in inverse relationship to the rise in television ownership. As tradition became outmoded and a dispirited Christianity forfeited influence, the public focus began to shift from nostalgia and the compensation of a reward in heaven to an eager stress on the present combined with an impatient hope for a social heaven on earth in the near future.
The emphasis on informal and immediate fun that was the hallmark of Swinging Britain during pop’s peak years of 1965-7 was less evident abroad, particularly in America, where two other socio-cultural movements were unfolding. Inherited from the Beat Generation of the late Fifties, the first of these took the form of a radical ‘counterculture’ which, springing up in opposition to the materialism of mainstream society, arose in California with a special concentration in and around San Francisco. Though framed in terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shaft of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD. Synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine, LSD is a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement - an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it. Recruited by Dr Timothy Leary to, the existing underground pharmacy of marijuana, mescalin, and magic mushrooms, LSD came to the attention of the mass media in early 1966 when, as state legislatures moved to ban it, Allen Ginsberg urged that all healthy Americans over the age of fourteen should take at least one ‘trip’ in order to perceive ‘the New Wilderness of machine America’ as it really was. ‘If there be necessary revolution in America,’ declared the poet, ‘it will come this way.’
The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgementalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to far Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’1 and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia. This, however, was not the only Utopian prescription on offer. Born from the freedom-rides and marches of the civil rights movement, the American New Left offered an alternative route: a neo-socialist moral rearmament crusade aimed at discrediting the System - the ‘power élite’ perceived as directing the somnambulistic progress of a media-drugged mainstream ‘Amerika’ - and, more specifically, its supposed creation the Vietnam war. Centred on Students for a Democratic Society, this coalition was campus-based, youth-orientated, deeply idealistic, and highly self-righteous. As such, it had much in common with the burgeoning student protest movements in France and Germany with their Oedipal revolts against, respectively, the old Communist party and the post-war conspiracy of silence about Nazism. In each case the governing motifs were the ‘repressive tolerance’ of an unfeeling institutional hierarchy without moral mandate as against everything new, young, unprejudiced, experimental, and irresponsible.
Though they competed with each other, the hyperpolitical New Left and apolitical ‘acid’ counterculture in America in many ways overlapped. The hippie communes and alternative economy were based partly on the ‘parallel structures’ ideology of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee and partly on the philosophy of the Diggers, an LSD-propelled San Francisco anarchist group which took its name and inspiration from a 17th-century English proto-communist movement. At the incessant sit-ins and demonstrations organised in Berkeley during the Sixties, it was often impossible to distinguish between these two cultural streams, although the New Left’s agitational/confrontational priorities became significantly less fashionable at the peak of LSD’s influence in 1966-7. Whatever else it was, this multifaceted phenomenon was fascinating, tempting hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims to San Francisco to, as Frank Zappa drily put it, ‘play their bongos in the dirt’.1 Recording Sgt. Pepper at the time, The Beatles were more affected by this ferment than any other British group, McCartney and Harrison each visiting California to make their own evaluation of what was going on.
That there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: a light, joyous optimism with a tangible spiritual aura and a thrillingly fresh informality (McCartney: ‘Drugs, basically’).2 For some, though - like the satirist Zappa, the urban-realistic Velvet Underground, and The Doors in their darker songs - this was no more than a fey daydream. Within the ranks of The Beatles, such scepticism was the prerogative of Lennon whose main ‘1967’ songs  ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE and  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE are unconvincing beside Harrison’s philosophical centrepiece for Sgt. Pepper,  WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU - and far less authentically personal than the angry  I AM THE WALRUS or the tragic-transcendent  A DAY IN THE LIFE. ‘Paul said “Come and see the show”,’ Lennon later observed. ‘I said “I read the news today, oh boy”.’ In this respect, he anticipated the shift from 1967, the year of peace and love, to 1968, the ‘year of the barricades’. In fact, so aware was he of the growing confrontation between the counterculture and the establishment that he wrote his polemical  REVOLUTION months before les événements of May ‘68 whilst in the rarefied air of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Himalayan retreat at Rishikesh.
Had he made the pilgrimage to San Francisco in 1967, Lennon would no doubt have sensed the counterculture’s incipient commercialisation and impending decline into hard drugs, and written a perceptive song about it; however, he was too engrossed in psychedelic inner exploration to be bothered. Self-absorbed at one reach of his personality, self-erasingly Utopian at the other, he was a typical LSD user only in his willingness to believe that the drug’s effects would inevitably do him good. His perilous brush with identity-loss ( TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS) was brought about not by a single catastrophic bad trip but through massive over-indulgence. Others were less lucky, suffering permanent, even fatal, damage.1 Yet for the mass of LSD users (which, during the late Sixties, numbered several millions of the brightest young men and women of their generation) the effects of this potent hallucinogen were more benign, if in the long run nonetheless insidious.
The paradox of the so-called ‘love drug’ was that the universal empathy it created rarely translated into concrete love for another human being, an effect due to the self-negation of the typical LSD experience in which individuality in itself ceased to seem important. Using it, normal people were able to move direcdy to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness - as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig’ it. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void. Enshrined in the motto of Rolling Stone magazine as ‘the cosmic giggle’, this implied a world view with neither framework nor stability; indeed one contemporary social study notes that Sixties hippies actively revelled in ‘ontological insecurity’, treating those who sought fixed truths and values with a mischievous irony their victims were hardly aware of and never understood.1
Despite this, the hippie outlook, if so heterogeneous a group can be said to have cleaved to one position, was by no means flippant. Theirs was a kaleidoscopically inventive culture, actively devoted to the acquisition of self-knowledge and the promotion of fundamental social change. In rejecting the hippies, the punks of 1976-7 discarded only a caricature, coming nowhere near an adequate grasp of what they imagined they were rebelling against.2 Hippie communality was real without being ideological, and many of its concerns — the open attitude to sex, the interest in spirituality, the pioneering focus on ecology, the enthusiasm for alternative technology and medicine - were quickly assimilated to the intelligent fringes of the mainstream. Committed hippies, moreover, soon realised the dangers of drugs, instead pursuing their inner quests through Eastern mysticism. (Their respect for tradition - providing it was older than that of the previous generation -contrasted sharply with the sweeping iconoclasm of their New Left rivals, among whom were the punks’ own preceptors, the Situationists.) Yet only a small minority of those exposed to LSD went on to follow this life-style. For the majority, self-contemplation became self-regard, and merry detachment degenerated into the sort of nihilistic game-playing epitomised by the sordid Discordian philosophy of the Illuminatus trilogy.3
Propagated through a haze of drugs and half-baked ideas, what began as a flirtation with indeterminism amongst modern artists (see ) entered the mainstream via the pop culture of the late Sixties. The result was what might be called the ‘rock mentality’: a state of mind (regularly linked in later decades with irrational murders and suicide-pacts) in which urge ousts ethics under the haphazard tutelage of semi-coherent song lyrics.4 The Beatles made a substantial contribution of their own to amoral meaninglessness with the random lyrics and effects which adorned their later work. Just as this backfired on them in the form of the ‘Paul is dead’ hysteria (see , note) and Lennon’s death at the hands of a demented fan in 1980, so the playful relativism of the ‘flower power’ summer of 1967 produced its own nemesis in 1968-9 in the shape of acid-crazed extremists like the Motherfuckers, the Manson Family, the Molotov Cocktail Party, and the Weathermen. The sad fact was that LSD could turn its users into anything from florally-bedecked peaceniks to gun-brandishing urban guerrillas.
The most explicit link between ‘acid’ and anarchistic violence was made by the Weathermen. Responsible for thousands of bomb attacks on US institutions during 1969-72, they attempted to forestall FBI/CIA infiltration by convening meetings in which everyone present took LSD on the principle that no secret policeman could maintain his cover whilst tripping. In 1970, this group - renamed the Weather People in deference to its many zealous female members - ‘liberated’ acid guru Timothy Leary from a minimum security jail, hailing him as a key figure in ‘the revolution’. Buckling on a pistol before fleeing to Algeria, the former prophet of love and peace exhorted what remained of his gullible audience to get off their ‘pious non-violent asses’ and free by force all other incarcerated representatives of the once-benign alternative society. While The Beatles had nothing directly to do with any of this, Lennon, having set out from a position of scepticism, agreed to write  COME TOGETHER for Leary’s 1969 California election campaign and later found himself composing a paean to White Panther John Sinclair and inviting the risible Jerry Rubin to play bongos in his pseudo-revolutionary New York group. There was, in truth, little of significance that happened in their time, however foolish or disreputable, which did not almost immediately find its way into The Beatles’ life and work.
Though the late Sixties’ youth rebellion declined into an ugly farce of right-on rhetoric and aimless violence, it would be a gross distortion to pretend that this was not substantially provoked by the stone-faced repressive arrogance of the establishment in those days.1 As brutal as the backlash against the civil rights movement, the attack launched on the counterculture by US law enforcement agencies was massive and paramilitary, embracing everything from sabotage and spying to assault and battery. While Abbie Hoffmann’s Yippies bear a large share of the blame for the riot at the Chicago Democratic convention in August 1968, the violence of the police (as of the state troopers at People’s Park in 1969 and Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970) was wildly disproportionate and guaranteed, if not actually calculated, to generate extremism. Nor was this simply a question of blue-collar impatience with the ‘unpatriotic’ exhibitionism of a crowd of cosseted middle-class kids. Simultaneously besieged by blazing black ghettos and a swelling clamour against the Vietnam war, the US government saw the social critique advanced by the counterculture as a direct threat to national security. As such, the hippie/New Left amalgam constituted an ‘internal enemy’ which had to be defeated. Thus what began as an earnest but peaceful conflict between parental conservatism and youthful idealism gradually degenerated into a head-on clash between a repressive past and an ultra-libertarian future.1
The axis of this collision was the revolutionary present: the NOW in which all protest demands were ritually required to be met. The chanting of this magic word at demonstrations more than anything else distinguished the Sixties from the Fifties and marks the watershed between the precarious instability of the world we live in today and the hollow rigidity of what it sprang from during 1963-73.2 The ethos of preceding generations had been one of prudent, orderly accumulation based on budgeting for the future and controlling one’s appetite. Essentially an ethic of scarcity, this way of life - sneered at as ‘bourgeois’ by Sixties revolutionaries, but as firmly espoused by the proletariat - began to seem dated as post-war affluence expanded and youngsters for the first time found themselves with spending money. But while relative wealth may have been the immediate instigator of the ‘now’ mentality, there was something deeper at work: a reaction against spiritual inertness comparable to that of the Beats and Existentialists in the Fifties. Much of this (as The Beatles noted in  ELEANOR RIGBY) stemmed from the failure of the Church to provide anything more than a weekly social focus for local communities. With its promise of personal immortality, Christianity had for centuries focused its congregations’ eyes on the happy future rather than on present injustice. By the 1950s, when The Beatles and their audience were growing up, it seemed clear that religion no longer had any supernatural collateral to support its claims. The young deduced that their parents’ assumptions were obsolete and that, since this world was the only one they would ever know, postponing pleasurable self-discovery was pointless.
The Beatles’ lives and works are prototype models of post-Christian ‘nowness’. Entirely lacking the uptown urbanity or proverbial worldly wisdom of pre-1963 popular music, their early lyrics are careless, streetwise, immediate, sensationalistic - the expression of minds without respect for age or experience, interested only in the thrills, desires, and disappointments of the present. Lennon later spoke of this outlook as if it had been derived from LSD, but the imperative ‘to live now, this moment’1 was central to Sixties culture from the outset. Furthermore the feeling was communicable across generations, being felt by many then in their thirties and forties. Indeed, the format of modern pop - its fast turnover, high wastage-rate, and close link with fads and styles — is intrinsically instantaneous. Few of The Beatles’ first hundred records last much longer than two minutes and the musical structure of all of them assumes a rapid cycle of repetition absolutely at one with the jerkily busy production-line of the juke box. Compared with the slumberous tranquillity of Fifties crooners like Perry Como and Michael Holliday, Sixties pop was, in the words of The Who’s resident cultural analyst Pete Townshend, ‘in a flat spin’.
Instantaneity defines the pop life and, as such, saturates The Beatles’ music. Their domestic behaviour - filling their drives with multiple Rolls-Royces and their houses with expensive junk they never looked at again - is standard among young pop stars and may appear to be no more than a slight acceleration of the nouveau riche syndrome. Yet, as George Martin amusedly observed, the same casually voracious ‘nowness’ marked everything they did in the studio too. Lennon rarely bothered to learn any instrument properly, always wanting to move straight to expressing himself. More studious than his partner, McCartney nonetheless showed the same impatience, growing testy if any delay occurred in rigging up the new recording effects he and his colleagues constantly demanded. If an arrangement or an unusual instrument or an entire orchestra was needed, The Beatles expected it to be there immediately. Waiting killed the spontaneity they so prized, taking them back into the patient, postponed, slow world of their parents. (Even the long hours of improvisation they indulged in during their later studio career were governed by the same present-time mentality, Martin’s engineers yawning and glancing glumly at the clock while the group played on and on, lost in their collective perpetual ‘now’.)
While The Beatles’ faith in instantaneity produced marvellous (if occasionally monstrous) musical results, it worked less reliably when translated into ordinary speech. The irreverent directness of their early interviews was funny and endearing precisely because so obviously uncalculated. Unlike previous pop stars - programmed to recite their future itineraries and favourite colours - The Beatles replied to the press in facetious ad-libs provoked by whatever was going on in the immediate present. Yet, when anything more serious came up, their thought-processes often betrayed themselves as trite and tangled. Lennon’s casually incautious remarks about Jesus and McCartney’s careless admission that he regularly took LSD brought howls of righteous anger on their heads, while profligate confusion characterised the entire ‘philosophy’ of their business creation Apple. When Yoko Ono, asked how she would have coped with Hitler, replied that she would have changed his attitude by sleeping with him, the mirth her instant redemptionism provoked among the assembled press stung Lennon into losing his temper, exposing his similarly instant pacifism. The Beatles felt their way through life, acting or expressing first, thinking, if at all, only later.
Partly prescribed by the self-mocking Liverpudlian wit which never lets anyone hog the limelight for long, the scattergun style of Beatles press conferences owed most to the simple fact that they were a group. Before them, pop acts had been neatly presented as soloists or well-drilled units each with its clearly identified leader. With their uncanny clone-like similarity and by all talking chattily at once, The Beatles introduced to the cultural lexicon several key Sixties motifs in one go: ‘mass’-ness, ‘working-class’ informality, cheery street scepticism, and -most challenging to the status quo - a simultaneity which subverted conventions of precedence in every way. Briefly a buzz-word among Parisian poets and Cubists before 1914, simultaneity was revived in the early Sixties by Marshall McLuhan in texts hailing society’s liberation from the ‘tyranny’ of print by electronic media (of which the most dominant was, and is, television). Deploring linear thought and fixed points of view, which he saw as sources of conflict and tension in the Western mind, McLuhan welcomed the chaotic ‘flow’ of media simultaneity, communal exchange, and amplified sensory experience. Little read today, he was a prophet of modem fragmentation - of multichannel TV, multiculturalism, multimedia, multipolar politics, polymorphous sexuality, and the extreme critical relativism of Deconstruction. In their characters, collective and individual, The Beatles were perfect McLuhanites. More importantly, their work showed them to be prophets on their own terms: pioneers of a new ‘simultaneous’ popular art.
Referring loftily to Lennon’s In His Own Write in the House of Commons in 1964, Charles Curran described its author as existing ‘in a pathetic state of near-literacy’. ‘He seems,’ sneered Curran, ‘to have picked up bits of Tennyson, Browning, and Robert Louis Stevenson while listening with one ear to the football results on the wireless’. As it happened - substituting Lewis Carroll for Tennyson and the Goons for the football results - this was a fairly shrewd summary in Lennon’s case.1 Setting a style which later spread throughout the younger generation, The Beatles liked to surround themselves with a continuous low-level media babble of loosely scattered newspapers and magazines and permanently murmuring radios and TVs. Apart from the fact that it amused them to live like this - relishing the coincidences and clashes of high and low style that it entailed - they valued simultaneity for its random cross-references which suggested ideas that might otherwise not have occurred to them. Many Beatles songs stemmed from chance meetings between scraps from the day’s papers and half-attentive toying with bars from songs on the radio. Furthermore, as they grew more confident, they increased this random factor by making regular use of accidental occurrences during recording (such as the radio broadcast of King Leaf fortuitously mixed into the coda of  I AM THE WALRUS), or by deliberately setting up chance-generated musical events (of which the most sustained is  REVOLUTION 9, an explicit evocation of modernity’s saturated simultaneity of awareness).
As records - as distinct from songs - The Beatles’ works grew increasingly multi-focal, the conventionally dominant lead vocal vying for the listener’s ear with disconcerting harmonies, instrumental countermelodies, backwards tapes, and distracting sound-effects. Using the overdub facilities of multitrack recording, they evolved a new way of making records in which preplanned polyphony was replaced by an unpredictable layering of simultaneous sound-information, transformed by signal-distortion and further modified during the processes of mixing and editing. The same multifocal mentality determined their lyrics, which, starting from barely considered verbal projections of musical moods in their early work, later became largely randomised streams-of-consciousness, cut up and sprinkled into the sensory cauldron of the general sound. Here the literate, crafted, and consequential ethos of such representatives of erstwhile social stability as Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, Oscar Hammerstein, and Noël Coward was superseded by an elusive maelstrom of fragmentary impressions, perceptions, and jokes reflecting the collage spirit of an instantaneous, simultaneous, chance-embracing new age.
Not that The Beatles were fans of formlessness; quite the opposite. Lennon and McCartney had a fine nose for weak points and how to strengthen them, bringing to their work a tight, if idiosyncratic, sense of structure, and a high density of musical incident bespeaking a habit of detailed listening. Yet even this attentiveness differed from that of the preceding generation in that its priority was not the song but the folk-technological artefact of the record. What thrilled The Beatles about early rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues records was the sheer strangeness of the sound they made. And what delighted them (simultaneously cultivating their future creativity), was deciphering how the elements of this - words, melody, voices, instruments, arrangement, production - worked together. Emerging from this multifocal artistic background, Lennon wrote ‘to create a sound’. (‘The words were almost irrelevant.’)1 And, while McCartney established a kind of continuity with earlier generations with his style-pastiches and narrative lyrics, he did this chiefly to hold his audience’s interest by constantly multiplying The Beatles’ idiomatic allusions. As their rivals followed suit, pop shifted from a stable medium of social confirmation to a proliferating culture of musical postcards and diary-jottings: a cryptic forum for the exchange of individual impressions of accelerating multifocal change.2
Fast-moving and devolved, the pop culture of the Sixties was intrinsically democratic. Its meaning grounded more in feeling than sense, it represented an upsurge of working-class expression into a medium till then mostly handed down to the common man by middle-class professionals with little empathy for street culture. Leading this democratisation of a profession of trained specialists, The Beatles were amused, on entering Abbey Road in 1962, to discover it staffed by boffin-like technicians in white lab-coats. Attached to this curious scene was a ‘right’ way of doing things which initially thwarted the accommodation of their sound but which, after seven years of destruction-testing in a dozen Beatle albums, had completely changed. (A microcosm of the assault on orthodoxy then going on across the cultural spectrum, The Beatles’ revolutionising of the recording studio, prompted by the demands of Lennon’s unruly imagination, was masterminded by the more methodically exploratory McCartney in tandem with George Martin and his talented engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott.) The only significant aspect of pop The Beatles failed to change was the business itself. Acquiring possibly the only honest manager in Britain at the time (certainly the only one to vote Labour), they nevertheless ended their career together on the time-honoured killing-field of the contractual dispute. Twenty-five years after them, the commerce in this area continues to move in the traditional direction: into the bank accounts of the money men.
Of all the manifestations of instantaneity in the Sixties, the most obviously hapless was the instant revolution of Euro-Maoism. While change in mid-Sixties Britain might be symbolised by a jeans-clad photographer driving a Rolls-Royce, the democratic impulse elsewhere was less merrily hedonistic, more seriously political. After the social uprising of the first half of the decade, the Vietnam war incited a moral uprising in the second half; but it was not till Mao Tse-tung launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966 that the European Left found a faith to replace the one shattered by Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin in 1956. The attraction of 1966-vintage Maoist revolution in the age of instantaneity was that it eliminated the preparatory phases of Lenin’s model, positing a direct leap to the Communist millennium which would expunge all class distinctions at a stroke. This, decided the excited young ideologues of the West, amounted to ‘a break with history’. All that remained was to take to the streets and ‘tear down the walk’.
In the heady, simultaneous, present-time Sixties atmosphere, enthusiasm for Mao’s instant revolution spread rapidly on the campuses of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Britain - and again The Beatles found themselves, culturally, in the thick of it. For hinting that baiting the establishment with red flags would only spark a backlash, Lennon’s  REVOLUTION was vilified in the left-wing press on both sides of the Adantic (see ). The radical film-director Jean-Luc Godard, fresh from a politically correct portrayal of The Rolling Stones, blasted The Beatles for their apoliticism1 an attack which, while it glanced off Lennon, accurately reflected the mood among Left activists of the time. Egged on by demagogues like Sartre and Foucault calling for ‘direct action’ (violence) and ‘people’s justice’ (lynch law), extremists hijacked the hopeful energy of the Sixties, turning it into a rolling riot. While the sun still shone on the almost entirely peaceful outdoor rock festivals whose era continued for another five years, 1968 cast a shadow of pessimism which lengthened during the following decade, leading inevitably to the anger of 1976-8 and the cynicism of the Eighties. Student unrest rumbled on in Britain for the rest of the Sixties and was eventually replaced by the violent Situationism of the Angry Brigade. On the continent, Euro-Maoism persisted into the Seventies, crash-helmeted rioters periodically taking to the streets in France and anarchists breaking into gigs and concerts in Germany to ‘liberate’ them. Finally, turning desperate, it went underground with the kidnappings, bank-robberies, and assassinations of Action Direct, the Red Brigades, and the Red Army Faction.2
The student revolts of the late Sixties - not only in Western Europe but in Czechoslovakia, America, and Japan - were surprisingly quickly forgotten. By 1972, the campuses had settled down and ‘student revolution time’, as The Beach Boys had serenaded it,3 was so much a thing of the past that it was possible to attend university in the mid-Seventies without knowing it had happened. At its height, this tumult divided America against itself more violendy than at any time since the Civil War and came within a whisker of sweeping the French government out of office; yet its actual achievements were meagre: a few curriculum changes and some minor additions to civil rights legislation. Though the revolutionary Left’s calls for ‘self rule’ and ‘participatory democracy’ were timely, its venerable class-war ideology was an anachronism even in 1968. Instead the real legacy of the Sixties’ democratic impulse was handed down from sources rooted in that era: the civil rights movement (black emancipation and multiculturalism), the hippies (environmental and health pressure groups), and the permissive society (feminism and gay liberation). Essentially populist, the Sixties were also essentially non-ideological - socially reformative rather than politically revolutionary. As such, the events of 1968 were a kind of street theatre acted out by middle-class radicals too addled by theory to see that the real Sixties revolution was taking place, not in the realms of institutional power, but in the minds of ordinary people. The ‘masses’, whom activists had been taught to regard as inert material to be moulded to their ends, turned out to be impervious to crude attempts to raise their consciousness or pretentious ‘happenings’ designed to reveal their ‘true desires’. They knew their desires quite well already and were getting on with satisfying them.
The true revolution of the Sixties - more powerful and decisive for Western society than any of its external by-products - was an inner one of feeling and assumption: a revolution in the head. Few were unaffected by this and, as a result of it, the world changed more thoroughly than it could ever have done under merely political direction. It was a revolution of and in the common man; a revolution (as Aaron Copland, author of the eponymous fanfare, observed), whose manifesto - its vices as much as its virtues, its losses as well as its gains, its confusions together with its lucidities - is readable nowhere more vividly than in The Beatles’ records. In effect, the ‘generation gap’ which opened in the Fifties turned out not to be a quarrel between a particular set of parents and children but an historical chasm between one way of life and another. After the Sixties, references to the generation gap lapsed largely because few were any longer aware of such a thing; indeed, it would have seemed reasonable at the time to have assumed that the lesion had miraculously closed up and healed. Yet what actually happened was that a new way of life so persuasively and pervasively replaced an earlier one that the majority made the mental crossing between them without really noticing it (much as Britain passed from imperial to decimal coinage around the same time).
A transitional period, the Sixties witnessed a shift from a society weakly held together by a decaying faith to a rapidly desocialising mass of groups and individuals united by little more than a wish for quick satisfaction; from a sheltered assumption of consensus, hierarchy, and fixed values to an era of multiplying viewpoints and jealously levelled standards; from a naive world of patient deferral and measurable progress to a greedy simultaneity of sound-bite news and thought-bite politics; from an empty and frustrating moral formality to an underachieving sensationalism. What playwright (and A Hard Day’s Night scriptwriter) Alun Owen has called the ‘divine right of the establishment’ was definitively punctured in that decade and, while the establishment itself survived, its grandly complacent delusion of immunity did not. Thirty years later the conservative political culture of the West, democratised from below and harried by a contemptuous media, is riven by factions and rotten with corruption. Yet, ironically, orthodox socialism - the secular faith of humanism - appears equally obsolete in the face of the multifocal chaos of modern selfishness. The truth is that the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.1
These contradictions were unresolved in the Sixties, it being chiefly the clash between them which sparked the electricity millions then felt in the air. Symbolised by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, the revolt of youth against institutional authority was at first less obvious in The Beatles because suppressed by Brian Epstein in the interests of popular appeal. Packaged for family consumption, The Beatles nonetheless felt as nonconformist as their colleagues, and after breaking Epstein’s benign hold over them in 1966 they began, in uncertain terms, to speak their minds. Lennon and Harrison were the main dissidents, Lennon in particular angry in the belief that The Beatles had become embourgeoised, initially by the conventions of showbiz and later by the fantasy world of LSD. (A temperamental socialist who voted conservative to guard his money, he embodied all the tensions and contradictions inherent in the transitional Sixties and, as such, was a shrewd choice - by Desmond Morris - as ‘Man of the Decade’.)
At the point at which The Beatles took control of their destiny -coinciding with the simultaneous appearance of LSD and the counterculture - right-wing papers began predicting the demise of the ‘beat groups’ and attacking the alleged worship of youth and novelty among their Fleet Street rivals. In The Neophiliacs, the Christian writer Christopher Booker saw what was happening as a mass-hysteria based on a ‘vitality fantasy’, describing the youth uprising and its leaders The Beatles as a manifestation of ‘evil’. Based on an eccentric Spenglerian system of historical cycles, The Neophiliacs was written too close to the events it sought to explain to see that, far from fizzling out as its author and most of the upmarket press assumed, they were about to take on a new intensity. As for The Beatles, rather than played out, they were on the verge not only of their best work but of adding to it a philosophical dimension wholly defying Booker’s analysis. Since middle-class Christians tend to conceive a ‘spiritual crisis’ as something which happens only to conscientious individuals and in the best of Anglican good taste (and certainly not to the accompaniment of electric guitars), it was hard for Booker, or Malcolm Muggeridge, or Mary Whitehouse to understand that much of what appeared to be profane in Sixties youth culture was quite the opposite. Writing three years later, a more open-minded Christian, Kenneth Leech, was able to grasp the late Sixties for what they were: a spiritual crisis en masse.
Far from appearing out of thin air in the Sixties, as many conservatives now like to believe, the decade’s mass-transition from sacred to secular represented a climactic stage in the historical rise of science. Over recent centuries, the Christian glue which once cemented Western society had been progressively weakened by the shocks of scientific discovery (the most catastrophic being the realisations that not only is the earth neither the centre of creation nor four thousand years old but that humanity is physically descended from the apes). With the arrival of the 20th century, the technological spinoffs the scientific outlook became increasingly forceful in their social impact. During the 1914-18 war, the old order was brought close to collapse by the devastating invention of the machinegun, surviving the disillusionment of the Twenties only because their Sixties-like tastes for novelty, promiscuity, and drugs were too much the indulgence of a privileged few to pose a general threat to stability. In the Sixties, however, socially liberating post-war affluence conspired with a cocktail of scientific innovations too potent to resist: TV, satellite communications, affordable private transport, amplified music, chemical contraception, LSD, and the nuclear bomb. For ordinary people -the true movers and shakers of the Sixties - these factors produced a restless sense of urgency headily combined with unprecedented opportunities for individual freedom. Abandoning a Christian world of postponed pleasure for a hungry secularism fed by technological conveniences, they effectively traded a hierarchical social unity in which each ‘knew his place’ for the personal rewards of a modern meritocracy.
The mass shift to individualistic materialism came into full swing as The Beatles appeared, and the records they made in their early career reflect its mood with unselfconscious elation: ‘good time’ music, simple in feeling and with the accent on physical excitement. At the same time, as if shadowing the rise of the new secularism, society’s intake of consciousness-depressing drugs1 grew so rapidly that when consciousness-enhancing drugs like marijuana and LSD appeared around 1965-6 the contrast was inescapable. Advocated in America by former Beats like Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, psychedelic drugs exposed modernity’s spiritual emptiness, challenging the ‘unexamined life’ of the consumer society. The resulting acid counterculture of the mid-Sixties was both a mass attempt to transcend the self in the absence of God and an echo of the 19th-century Romantics’ use of opium to release the imagination from the tiresome constraints of rationalism.2 Switching from mainstream drugs to countercultural drugs (and, in doing so, rejecting the naive materialism implicit in their early style), The Beatles made quality of awareness the overriding topic of their work from Revolver onwards. Writing about this ten years later, Lennon described his own and his generation’s ‘so-called “drug-abuse”’ as a struggle to break out of the straitjacket of the mind - ‘to reach “out there’”.3 For him, the cultural continuity with artistic revolts in earlier periods and with driven individuals like Van Gogh and Dylan Thomas was obvious. (The ‘sky’ and celestial imagery in songs of this period - Lennon offering one notable case-study, Jimi Hendrix another - dramatises this generational yearning for a spiritual life beyond the banality of the material one.)1
As the externalised conscience of mainstream society, the counterculture soon came into conflict with the surviving class-stratified, conservative/religious mentality of the Fifties, vying with it for the soul of consumerdom. Happy to be consumers, ordinary people remained unmoved by this battle, instead getting on with enjoying their new modern world of convenience and independence. During 1967, all they noticed of the Consciousness War being waged over their heads was that certain hippies and pop stars were being made examples of by being ‘busted’ for possessing drugs, and that The Beatles were, as the Queen quaintly put it, ‘getting awfully strange these days’. With the establishment fighting back hard in 1968, another element was provoked into play: the revolutionary anarcho-communism of the New Left. Yet, while riots and bombs were hard to ignore, the great mass of society was no more taken with the student radicals than it had been with the restrained grey Fifties or the multicoloured hippies. Resisting these various pitches for social consensus, the mainstream continued with its acquisitive individualism, buying Beatles records for their tunes and tolerantly ignoring their lyrics. Thus, by a devilish paradox, those who thought they were at the cutting edge of social development in the Sixties — the hippies, the New Left - soon found themselves adrift in the wake of the real social avant-garde of the period: ordinary people. The individualism of the Me Decade, as Tom Wolfe dubbed the Seventies, was a creation of the Sixties’ mass mainstream, not of the peripheral groups which challenged it. Former hippies and radicals who abandoned the Utopian ‘we’ for rueful self-interest in the Seventies, far from leading public taste, were merely tagging along behind it. As for the punks, their blurt of betrayal in 1976-8 was apprehended by the comfortable, sensible majority of Western society with no more than mystified amusement.
The irony of modern right-wing antipathy to the Sixties is that this much-misunderstood decade was, in all but the most superficial senses, the creation of the very people who voted for Thatcher and Reagan in the Eighties. It is, to put it mildly, curious to hear Thatcherites. condemn a decade in which ordinary folk for the first time aspired to individual self-determination and a life of material security within an economy of high employment and low inflation. The social fragmentation of the Nineties which rightly alarms conservatives was created neither by the hippies (who wanted us to ‘be together’) nor by the New Left radicals (all of whom were socialists of some description). So far as anything in the Sixties can be blamed for the demise of the compound entity of society it was the natural desire of the ‘masses’ to lead easier, pleasanter lives, own their own homes, follow their own fancies and, as far as possible, move out of the communal collective completely.1
The truth is that, once the obsolete Christian compact of the Fifties had broken down, there was nothing - apart from, in the last resort, money - holding Western civilisation together. Indeed the very labour-saving domestic appliances launched onto the market by the Sixties’ consumer boom speeded the melt-down of communality by allowing people to function in a private world, segregated from each other by TVs, telephones, hi-fi systems, washing-machines, and home cookers. (The popularity in the Eighties of the answering machine - the phonecall you don’t have to reply to - is another sign of ongoing desocialisation by gadgetry.) It is, in short, no accident that Mrs Thatcher should have founded her outlook on the conviction that society does not exist - and no surprise that her favourite Sixties tune is ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados, a record symbolising the rise of technology-driven post-war prosperity and mass social emancipation. She and her radicalised, post-consensus Conservative voters are the true heirs of the Sixties. They changed the world, not the hippies (and certainly not the New Left). What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualisation - and total fragmentation - of Western society.
Hoist with its own petard, the New Right now seeks to pin the blame for the unhappier aspects of the Sixties’ social revolution on groups whose influence on the course of events over the past quarter of a century has been at best peripheral, at worst non-existent. While female, gay, and racial liberation have agitated against the status quo, none of these movements is pro-consensus or (except at their extremes) Utopian. Pressure groups promoting issues specific to themselves, women, gays, and blacks have been as much at war with the Left as with the Right, having less in common with socialist factionalism than with the upwardly mobile constituency that elected the Conservatives and the Republicans in the Eighties. The logic of their drive for self-determination predicts less social unity, not more - as (given the chances of any special interest minority imposing a totalitarian rule on the West) does the otherwise illiberal language of political correctness.
Almost as destructive, the facile ‘psychobabble’ disseminated via post-Freudian quick-cure therapies stems not from the Utopian selflessness of the hippies or New Left, but from the navel-gazing of the Seventies and the shameless self-love of the Eighties. (The right-wing lineage of modern ‘empowering’ cults from Ayn Rand to Scientology is self-proclaimed, while the most popular brand of Buddhism in the West exhorts its adherents to chant for Porsches.) As for the clearly Leftist philosophy of Deconstruction, its cynical egalitarianism has done great damage to the old cultural consensus of the West, demolishing respect for tradition and authority with nihilistic relish. A malignant rot has spread through the Western mind since the mid-Seventies: the virus of meaninglessness. Yet this infection threatens all ideologies, Left or Right, being at root no more than a leveling crusade on behalf of the aesthetically deprived - a Bad Taste Liberation Front. The reason why cultural relativism has caught on is not because ordinary people read Derrida but because the trickle-down essence of Deconstruction suits both the trash aesthetic of media-hounds and the philistinism of Essex Man.
The same goes for the wider post-Sixties social effects recently lamented by politicians on the look-out for votes. The slackening of parental control and educational standards - and the associated decline in areas of achievement less concrete than the pursuits of wealth, health, physical beauty, and sporting excellence - are too pervasive and run too deep in the modern world to be blamed on a conspiracy of Utopian Baby Boomers. Leaving aside the philistine nature of contemporary conservatism, the ‘anti-elitism’ of the Sixties, far from restricted to the counterculture, was intrinsic to the democratic spirit of the age. As such, the popular rebellion against authority was well under way before the arrival, in 1966, of its would-be hippie/anarchist leaders. Persisting in the background while the flower children and Maoists enjoyed their Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, the Sixties’ anti-authoritarian mood of cheeky undeceivability continued to make way for the quiet inner revolution of attitude and assumption within whose consequences, propitious and otherwise, we live today.
Again, most of the work of this revolution was inspired and facilitated by the productions of science. It is, for example, difficult to contemplate a labour-saving device without thinking somewhat less of traditional virtues like application and persistence. A culture of convenience is inevitably a culture of laziness - and, in this respect, the role of television in turning humanity into a passive audience has been much agonised over by social analysts of all persuasions. Yet the passivity of the TV experience is precisely what we enjoy about it; indeed television, with its in-built sensationalistic bias and bathetic discontinuities (‘And now for something completely different...’) has been more influential in advancing the post-Sixties revolution in the head than any other technological innovation. (Another culturally symbolic gadget from the Eighties is the TV remote-control which allows us to watch in a simultaneous state of mind, ‘channel-hopping’ so as to preclude sequential thought whilst decreasing emotional purchase on the material thus idly scanned.) Pop music, too, has played a role in reinforcing the manifest relaxation of goals and standards since the Sixties. Aside from the inescapable fact that this relaxation was to various degrees willed by the majority, pop and its shatteringly sensationalistic cousins rock, disco, and ‘rave’ music have been as much colonised by technology as any other area of modern Life. Its once flexible human rhythms replaced by the mass-production regularity of the drum-machine, its structures corporatised by the factory ethic of the sequencer, its vitality digitised to death and buried in multi-layered syntheticism, pop is now little more than a soundtrack for physical jerks.1
While the instantaneous/simultaneous mentality introduced by the Sixties suited new idioms like pop and television (mainly because substantially created by them), it had a less benign effect on older established forms. Classical music, once an art of expression, became a pseudo-scientific, quasi-architectural craft of technique whose principles of design, opaque to the ear, were appreciable only by examining the ‘blueprint’ of the score. Similarly the rapid succession of conceptual coups in the world of painting and sculpture, so novel at the time, turned out to be merely the end of modernism and, as such, the dying fall of Western art. Overtaken by the ‘artistic discourse’ of postmodernism, art became as literary as post-Webernian classical music was visual, producing the arid paradox of paintings to listen to and music to look at. Shorn of their content, art, music, and literature degenerated by increasingly inconsequential stages from art about art, to jokes about art about art, and finally to jokes about jokes about art about art.1 Pure surface, the screen-prints (instant paintings) of Warhol gave way, as if by design, to the empty, ‘hyper-realist’, air-brushed perfection of the Seventies’ ad-mass graphics style. Equally pure surface, the ‘minimalism’ (organised underachievement) of Philip Glass and Steve Reich moved smoothly from avant-garde status in the Sixties to soundtrack big business in the Eighties, while jazz fled the smouldering multifocal wreckage of the instantaneous/simultaneous New Thing to commercial sanctuary in the machine art of ‘jazz-funk’, there to tick over as efficiently as any other assembly-line.
The crucial thing that died with the rise of the instantaneous/simultaneous outlook was development: development of theme and idea, of feeling and thought, of story and character. Just as post-religious life has seen a rapid dwindling of interest in the process of growing older and wiser, so art has drifted up to the surface, forsaking progress for process, consequence for multifocal chaos, meaning for maximum impact. Thus, paralleling the general expectation of multiple orgasms instilled by the proliferating sex industry, the cinema has created the multiclimactic film in which narrative sense and dramatic structure are sacrificed to a sequence of sensationalistic shocks - a soullessly carnal genre appealing to the lowest common denominators in human nature: erotic titillation and the childish love of being thrilled or horrified. (Where linear development lingers on in the film world, it does so mainly in limply ironic form, typified by the designedly meaningless drift of the ‘road movie’.)
The root of contemporary intellectual scorn for narrative - apart from the enjoyment of despising precisely what ordinary people enjoy most: a good story - is post-religious egoism. Confessedly self-centred, Lennon mocked McCartney’s ‘novelist’ songs , contending that artistic authenticity could be achieved only by writing about oneself. If, as lyrico-musical unities, his songs clearly cut deeper than McCartney’s, they are ultimately as idiosyncratic as those of Dylan. Shallow as much of his work is, McCartney, facing candidly out into the world, repeatedly achieves the trick of matching popular appeal with quality of expression. If the difference between talent and genius in tune-writing lies in the degree to which a melody, more than merely catching the ear, tells an emotional story, he is beyond doubt an intermittent musical genius. By the same token, the depressing decline in his melodic gift since the break-up of The Beatles is the product of a deflation of feeling once his life outside the group lapsed into comfortable normality. Losing their expressive force, his tunes, while as crafted as ever, have become emotionally bland, while his music as a whole has lost the crucial element of habit-transcending surprise. This, though, has happened sooner or later to every artist working in pop. (Lennon, whose music was always more expressive than tuneful, managed to sustain his creative vitality only a little longer than his partner.) The ultimate root of this degenerative trait lies in the psychological change introduced into Western life during 1963-73: the revolution in the head which The Beatles played a large part in advancing and whose manifesto runs willy-nilly through their work, rendering it not only an outstanding repository of popular art but a cultural document of permanent significance.
The destabilising social and psychological evolution witnessed since the Sixties stems chiefly from the success of affluence and technology in realising the desires of ordinary people. The countercultural elements usually blamed for this were in fact resisting an endemic process of disintegration with its roots in scientific materialism. Far from adding to this fragmentation, they aimed to replace it with a new social order based on either love-and-peace or a vague anarchistic European version of revolutionary Maoism. When contemporary right-wing pundits attack the Sixties, they identify a momentous overall development but ascribe it to the very forces who most strongly reacted against it. The counterculture was less an agent of chaos than a marginal commentary, a passing attempt to propose alternatives to a waning civilisation.
Ironically the harshest critics of the Sixties are its most direct beneficiaries: the political voices of materialistic individualism. Their recent contribution to the accelerated social breakdown inaugurated around 1963 - economic Darwinism wrapped in self-contradictory socio-cultural prejudices - hasn’t helped matters, yet even the New Right can’t be held responsible for the multifocal and fragmented techno-decadence into which the First World is currently sinking as if into a babbling, twinkling, microelectronically pulsing quicksand. During the Nineties, the fashion was to reprove others for our own faults; yet even if we take the blame for ignoring our limitations and eroding our own norms over the last thirty years, it is hard to imagine much, short of Fascism or a Second Coming, that will put Humpty back together again.
The Sixties seem like a golden age to us because, relative to now, they were. At their heart, the countercultural revolt against acquisitive selfishness - and, in particular, the hippies’ unfashionable perception that we can change the world only by changing ourselves - looks in retrospect like a last gasp of the Western soul. Now radically disunited, we Uve dominated by and addicted to gadgets, our raison d’être and sense of community unfixably broken. While remnants of our once-stable core of religious faith survive, few are very edifying. Till hard drugs are legalised, the old world will retain some moral hold on us; but when they are, as the dictates of vulgar pragmatism predict, the last ties will be cut with our former way of life, far away from us on the other side of the sun-flooded chasm of the Sixties - where, courtesy of scientific technology, The Beatles can still be heard singing their buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs.
October 1993/January 1997