In 1966 I was a six-year-old misfit growing up in the ugly new Christchurch suburb of Aranui. My parents didn’t at all like rock ‘n’ roll or any aspect of youth culture so I was effectively isolated from it.
Occasionally a song fragment might drift my way from a few doors down, perhaps one of the local biker gangs would roar down our street or one of my much older siblings would come home wearing something new that suggested the outside world was changing.
Jon Savage’s idea is that 1966 was the key year of change and achievement in the eruptive decade that was the ‘60s. His book 1966 (Faber and Faber) loosely runs through the year month by month, picking out a key song and placing it within the development of the artist and their immediate environment to that point and then within the broader social, economic and political considerations of the time.
We get just enough background on each to understand what is going on with the key players when they appear in the narrative; The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Wilson Picket, The Who, The Four Tops, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys.
And there’s a plethora of significant others such as The Monks, Donovan, Love, Sandi Shaw, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Dusty Springfield, Solomon Burke, Stevie Wonder, The Troggs, Scott Walker, The Animals, The Monkees, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Percy Sledge, The Small Faces, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, Simon and Garfunkel, The Electric Prunes and The Zombies.
All of those and many more are included to illustrate a part of the story of 1966 and all are an important, integrated part of that story.
Most of the key bands had been around for a few years by this stage and were now releasing what would turn out to be their best work. All were frantically trying to evolve, create and release material in the form of singles.
But 1966 was the last year the concise compact unit of musical expression that is the 45 rpm single was the dominant commercial music format with the broader, more nebulous and tangential album soon to dominate. These singles represented “enormous ambition and serious engagement,” according to Savage.
There are a few holes in the book. The Beatles effectively withdrew from the action in August, 1966, immediately after the release of Revolver, exhausted by the touring and media attention and only emerged at the very years end to start recording ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ at Abbey Road.
This time away marks the major transition in terms of worldview and output that the band makes from bubbly pop stars to a collective of jaded self-determined personalities with a broader sprawling and sometimes-spectacular creative output.
Their time out of the limelight left a void that hastened the reversal of the British invasion in America and enabled the continued rise of the Rolling Stones.
Interestingly Savage consciously chooses to hold back and not write extensively about the key music personality of era. Bob Dylan had toured with The Band in the first part of that year, had gone electric and been publicly denounced as a “Judas” before falling off his motorbike and mysteriously withdrawing from public view.
Never mind, there is plenty else to be getting on with.
Savage does very well describing the broader changes occurring in the music business that year. Swinging London comes to an end with a deepening economic recession.
American musical dominance comes about once more with the rise of black artists James Brown, The Four Tops, Wilson Picket, The Supremes and the broader Motown and Stax recording artist stables who break into the affluent white markets in both the USA and the UK at this time.
The fast-developing music is best understood when put in context of the larger social changes occurring at this time in the then cultural centres of the world, London, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
There is some very useful background history on the growth of the CND movement through from the 1950s and an analysis of its influence on the folk music boom, thinking on Vietnam, feminism, gay rights and Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The drugs get darker and brighter now with “pills shaded into pot and LSD”. With Dylan and The Beatles in hiatus, an incredible range of artists, styles and genres achieve exposure and success through new more open music outlets (emboldened US independent record labels like Motown and Atlantic and pirate radio in the UK) feeding the growing audience.
The LSD-driven scene in San Francisco is on the rise and the 13th Floor Elevators make their way there from Texas to join the likes of the Jefferson Airplane.
In modern art capital New York, Andy Warhol creates a scene with music as a key component in the form of the Velvet Underground, who release their first album.
In Los Angeles, The Beach Boys release Pet Sounds and the Good Vibrations single while there are race riots in Watts and police brutality on Sunset Strip.
Things may have seemed fab and groovy, but there was a dark conservative underbelly that was reacting and pushing back against the new youth-centric liberality.
It was 1966 that effectively saw the defeat of Lyndon Johnston’s ideal of the “great society” and the start of the Republican resurgence with Ronald Regan’s rise in California.
Some of the music reflected this consistently significant conservative rump with the success of Sgt Barry Sadler’s Green Berets in the US charts and the continued success of Val Doonican, The Seekers and Tom Jones in the UK.
Jon Savage’s book is essentially about the rapidly accelerating and unsustainable change that was happening throughout western society at this time and music is the form that embodies those changes.
In a brief and quiet way, The Yardbirds are at the heart of 1966. The coolest band around at the start of the year with their The Shape of Things single and well on their way to world domination via the USA, but who, nine months later, are a group of has-beens, too old, too uncool and all over.
The cliché goes that if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t actually there. I think it can be accepted that while our culture rejoices in that transformative decade and celebrates its many musical highlights our actual understanding of it and its broader interconnected history is poor.
Now plain ignorance and hazy remembrance can be put right by the reading of this well researched, finely written and fascinating book. Highly recommended.
Jon Savage is a London based music journalist and music writer known for his definitive book about the early punk scene England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Rock and Roll (Faber and Faber, 1991). I also enjoyed his more recent Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945 (Viking, 2007) about the early evolution of the teenager.