As this decade limps towards its dying days, it appears television schedulers see little in it worthy of celebration or deserving of marking; there’s a glaring absence of reflective programmes looking back, the kind that used to be dotted throughout the listings at the climax of years ending in the number nine. But perhaps ten years defined by the likes of Trump, Boris and Brexit is seen by media types as akin to the embarrassing uncle who’s overstayed his Christmas welcome, and they just want it to hurry up and go with the minimum amount of fuss; this is quite a contrast with the way in which another decade on its way out was being commemorated exactly fifty years ago.
In December 1969, ATV produced a programmed titled ‘Man of the Decade’, an accolade shared by a notable trio – Ho Chi Minh, John F Kennedy and John Lennon. The latter profile saw Desmond Morris interview an upbeat Beatle strolling around the grounds of his Ascot homestead, reflecting on what’s gone and anticipating what’s to come. Touching on the subject of the Woodstock Festival, Lennon enthuses about the event as ‘the biggest mass of people ever gathered together for anything other than a war…Woodstock, the Isle of Wight – all the mass meetings of the youth – is completely positive for me…this is only the beginning; the 60s was just waking up in the morning, and we haven’t even got to dinnertime yet. And I can’t wait…I’m just so glad to be around.’
Lennon’s understandable awareness of society’s radical transformation was echoed across at the BBC. On New Year’s Eve, the startling journey of pop culture from Light Entertainment to Art – one of the decade’s most celebrated innovations – was represented by a curious collaboration between the BBC and the West German broadcaster ZDF. ‘Pop Go the 60s’ was presented by Jimmy Savile and groovy fraulein Elfie von Kalckreuth and looks like ‘Top of the Pops’ with a bigger-than-usual budget. Not only do The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks all appear in the studio, but they’re joined by the likes of Cliff and the Shadows, Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and numerous other Hit Parade regulars from earlier in the 60s. In many respects, it’s a far more balanced presentation of the wide variety of 60s pop than some made with the misleading benefit of extended hindsight.
Quite an in-depth analysis of the 60s when it still had a few days left to live came via a two and-a-half-hour marathon screened on Sunday 28 December on BBC2. Titled ‘Ten Years of What?’, the programme was presented by Jimmy Savile (again), though this concession to pop culture’s pivotal role in shaping the decade was only one facet of the 60s examined. An intriguing dinner party guest-list included the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Quant, Enoch Powell and Sir Francis Chichester, along with John Peel. Musing on the youth revolution in full contemplative hippie mode, Peel takes the viewer on a whistle-stop tour through the decade from the first stirrings of consciousness with the Aldermaston March, onto Beatlemania, pirate radio, Swinging London, drugs, Psychedelia, and the riots in Paris the year before; not only do the scenes of Parisian streets look uncannily similar to what has become a regular feature of the French capital over the past couple of years via the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests, but Peel’s summary of the reasons for youth’s abrupt awakening could easily be put in the mouths of today’s most vocal ‘influencers’.
‘Prior to (the 60s),’ says Peel, ‘everyone accepted, basically, what their parents said had to be right; and what their parents had been doing for the past couple of thousand years has basically got everything wrong.’ Now that we find ourselves at a moment when anyone over 40 is branded as responsible for everything from global warming to robbing their children of a future, hearing not-dissimilar claims from half-a-century before is a reminder that there’s nothing quite so new as the old. And what could be regarded as the defining aspect of youth in the eyes of the young – i.e. the absolute inability to countenance the fact that it isn’t eternal – is as durable a naive myth on the frontline of 2019 as it was on the barricades of 1969.
The contempt expressed for the parents who hounded the Stones and condemned John & Yoko is fuelled by a distinct ‘Our day is coming’ attitude; this sentiment has undeniable parallels with the contemporary adolescent Remainer mantra of believing all will be well once the senile citizens who voted Leave are dead and gone. The truth is that there’s no guarantee today’s generation will do any better once they inherit the earth than the 60s generation did when their turn came; just ask Bill Clinton – and he didn’t even inhale. But I suppose the one weapon his generation possessed that doesn’t appear to be in the possession of a generation that sometimes seems drunk on its own death-wish was optimism.
It’s easy to see why there was cause for optimism in December 1969; the fact that the Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert took place in California that month and has subsequently become lazy shorthand for ‘the death of the 60s’ doesn’t appear to have impacted on the overall positive vibes. One year later, maybe the loss of key cultural figureheads – whether The Beatles or Hendrix – in whom a great deal of those positive vibes were invested proved to be a bit of a party-pooper; but in the thick of such an invigorating epoch, anything probably seemed possible, with or without those who had lit the fuse and fanned such intoxicating flames. Indeed, that 60s spirit appears to have carried the western world on an optimistic wave that only really came crashing down to earth with the energy crisis of 1973 and everything that followed in its dispiriting wake. In this sense, John Lennon’s refusal to accept the 60s would end on 31 December 1969 was justified for a few years at least.
The baring of one’s soul that proved to be a turn-of-the-70s characteristic via the singer-songwriter boom was then a luxury for materially-comfortable rock stars. Today it has become second nature for everybody via social media, so perhaps the greater awareness of mental health issues, suggesting people are more f**ked-up now than they were fifty years ago, is merely a wider acknowledgement of something that has always been with us. Keeping calm and carrying on with the stiff upper lip – not to mention the threat of being carted off to the nearest asylum should that lip waver – probably prevented such painful honesty being common currency back then and helped optimism for the future remain the dominant narrative of that era in a way it hasn’t been in the 2010s, when the need to push pain to the forefront has become compulsory.
This is an age of anxiety that seems to demand the public expression of anxiety at all times – and this precludes optimism. Therefore, just as many at the calendar end of the 60s were convinced things could only get better, in the here and now it feels like they can only get worse. But, of course, that’s viewing everything collectively. Decades are only deemed good or bad if they are viewed either way en masse. Individually, the perspective depends on how one fared. Is the fact my own personal situation seems as bleak as the general air of despair mere coincidence or a symptom of the times I live in? No doubt some out there are saying goodbye to what has been (for them) a golden decade, though their voices are buried beneath the street theatre soothsaying of Extinction Rebellion and media crystal balls that are permanently tuned to the Ides of March. In 2019 it’s hard to face the future with a smile, and doing so almost feels like an act of treason; but what else have we got? See you in 2020.
© The Editor