'1966' singles out a moment when musical history was made

The Summer of Love gets all the press, but Jon Savage argues that the biggest break with the past happened the year before.

1966: The Year the Decade Exploded By Jon Savage Faber & Faber 620 pp.

Even in England, Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded hasn’t been reviewed as broadly or warmly as his definitive 1991 Sex Pistols biography "England’s Dreaming" or his century-straddling 2007 social-intellectual history "Teenage." And in the US, it’s been totally, and unjustly, ignored. I figure the problem is twofold. First, while at bottom a work of history, "1966" isn’t merely music-centered – unlike the highly subcultural "England’s Dreaming," it’s pop-centered. Second, while Savage is right to see the year when “the ’60s” became what we mean by that metonym as epitomized by its pop music, in the US and the UK both history and music were racing toward the future in parallel, not identically. They “exploded” simultaneously, but somewhat differently.

Pop – not “serious” enough. US-UK – dueling perspectives. Nevertheless, as someone who began writing about 1966 and its panoply of aftermaths as I turned 24 in the East Village that year, I learned a lot I didn’t know from Savage, who began the year as a London 12-year-old glued to pirate radio. Although he’s less comfortable describing the American phenomena he had to come here and research than the British ones he’s long since incorporated into his discursive apparatus, he’s careful to give the two nations equal time.

In fact, one of the chief virtues of "1966" is how dutifully and agilely this British freelance intellectual finesses these double complexities. Of course he focuses on singles rather than album – beyond Beatles–Stones–Dylan, 45s were still where the conceptual action was. But on both sides of the Atlantic he finds sociohistorical gold in not just major artists but utter obscurities – in what has to be called “art” because it was too weird for “pop.” Nor does he make the fatal error of privileging the “pop groups” soon to be designated “rock bands” over black artists. On the contrary, James Brown and Motown in particular get many pages and unmitigated respect. But typifying his schema’s pitfalls is something I’d never grasped – in Britain, the Motown classics covered by both the early Beatles and the early Stones remained more cult items than hits until Motown enlisted effective UK record-biz partners in 1965. I’m grateful to Savage for clearing this up. But, if only because it’s literally impossible for him to squeeze everything in, he doesn’t explore it enough.

The complexities begin with an Anglocentric generalization in a January chapter that builds to the sentence: “The pace of life quickened in the mid-sixties, and the fear of nuclear annihilation was the rocket fuel.” This gave me pause – while “the Bomb” was without question a potent metaphor in post-WW2 America, the ban-the-bomb movement and hence bomb consciousness remained relatively marginal here. But as Savage reminds us, in Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – fueled, I’d venture, by Britain’s ingrained left traditions and the still-fresh horrors of the Blitz – was mobilizing a counterculture by 1958.

Yet as Savage then explains, the CND had “peaked in about ’64-’65,” leaving the US to set the decade’s political tone via both its Vietnam War, which embroiled a draftee army that numbered 185,000 at the beginning of 1966 and 385,000 just 12 months later, and its civil rights movement, which inspired a white New Left datable to SDS’s 1962 Port Huron Statement and in 1966 amalgamated the lessons of 1965’s Selma march, the Civil Rights Act, and the Watts rebellion into one controversial, irresistible slogan: Black Power.

Backtracking to clarify and condensing for speed, Savage squeezes these upheavals and many more into his 547 pages by keying a month-titled chapter to each. May extols both a women’s movement sparked by Casey Hayden and Mary King’s 1966 critique of SDS’s gender-based “caste system” and the Supremes and Dusty Springfield; stretching a little, August links a barely nascent gay rights movement to doomed UK producer Joe Meek.

Usually, however, chapter themes are less explicitly political: youth ideology, lysergic mind expansion, Warhol’s Factory, the onset of “soul,” riots on Sunset Strip, and the mad ferment, brave experiments, and silly pretensions of “rock.” There’s a crucial and perhaps underplayed moment midway in, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson imposes wage and price freezes on a British economy that stalled years before America’s did, sealing Swinging London’s decline into last year’s brand. As the year slows to a close, the Beatles are rumored to be recording an album that will change everything. Next year’s brand: the Summer of Love.

Without undertaking the impossible task of folding all this action into a neat narrative, Savage constructs his mosaic efficiently. And always he keeps one eye and both ears on the music. In this his wide range is no less remarkable than his sense of thematic relevance. By picking and choosing – although he’s scrupulous about noting the wild cards the pop charts always put on the table – he illustrates his evolving theses with classics and finds, number ones shrouded in memory and minor hits you missed and flops you never heard of.

On the Brit side are brief portraits of not just Beatles-Stones-Who but Yardbirds–Kinks–Small Faces, on the Yank side deep readings of “Eight Miles High” and “Good Vibrations” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (as well as Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” a touchstone I’d long believed lost to history). There’s a pained yet comedic minor R&B hit about the draft and a foreshortened James Brown B-side so frantic Savage can’t resist claiming that it “completely deconstructed black music.” There are smitten accounts of Wilson Pickett‘s “Land of 1000 Dances” and the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

Scanning these passages again, I was struck by how nostalgic just the raw titles made me – recalling the music sparked an affection and awe that recalling the history did not. I knew this was just art transmuting truth into beauty and pop putting a happy face on “96 Tears” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” But to get a better bead on it I played and replayed "Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded," the double-CD he put together for Ace Records to accompany his tome. Soon I found that it sounded even better than it had when I reviewed it back in January. Turns out Savage was righter than I’d thought about arcana from the Ugly’s’ prophetic, anti-hegemonic opener “The Quiet Explosion” (all that in 2:40, really!) or the Human Expression’s freaked-out speed trip “Love at Psychedelic Velocity” (“We were basically trying to attract attention,” Savage was told). And with the music on my mind I began to wonder about something that hadn’t occurred to me as I read. No matter how “objectively” accounted for, history is always individual for each person experiencing it. What was tweenage Jon doing all this time? How many of these tunes did he relish as a record nerd a-borning?

Having traversed unreasonable elation and tumultuous rage, giddy hope and thwarted potential, Savage ends his big year fraught and exhausted – on his final musical selection, a fragile Tim Hardin wonders, “How can we hang on to a dream?” In Britain, maybe this was how it was. But in America, I don’t think so, because subtending what Otis Redding had yet to dub “the love generation” was a material base that, as Savage notes, was already shrinking in Wilson’s UK – two decades of rising prosperity with three years to go. And for me personally I know this wasn’t how it was, because 1966 was when I fell in love and found my lifework, while Savage – and here I’m compelled to guess – was a fresh-minted teenager trying to figure out who he was, a struggle I’d guess once again came to some sort of resolution in punk 1977. How his own life evolved in tandem with his nation’s during the 11 intervening years is something I’d love to learn more about.

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