1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage, Faber and Faber 2015
1966 began for me on a Sunday morning in May. ‘Walking My Cat Named Dog’ by Norma Tanega was on the transistor radio at the nurses’ station and my mum was no doubt sleeping. I was down the hall with a bunch of other babies. We were talking about The Kinks. No we weren’t. My memories don’t begin for another four years or so but like second wave feminism, the gay rights movement, radical black politics and rock rather than pop, I am a product of 1966.
We’re all turning fifty this year. Me, ‘The Ballad of Green Berets’, ‘Dead End Street’, ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Snoopy and the Red Baron’. How are we faring? Some of us better than others!
1966:The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage won the Penderyn Prize, a now annual award given to books about music and sponsored by a Welsh distillery. It’s a great idea and this year’s shortlist says a lot about the quality of contemporary books in this genre.
The publishing industry seems to be invested in individual years at the moment. Where once a book might have been called something grand like ‘The End of Medieval England’, it is now, ‘1485’. The focus will be on the events of that year and the writer will seek to establish those events as turning points or tipping points, as Malcolm Gladwell would have it.
At the moment on my coffee table, there are books called 1607 (James Shapiro’s follow up to 1599), 1966, Detroit 67, and a novel by Garth Risk Hallberg called City on Fire which appears to be set entirely in 1977 although it’s 900 pages long and I’m only halfway through it. It might be 1979 when I finish. Or 2017. On my kobo, there is a book by David Browne called Fire and Rain that is all about 1970 and one from a few years ago called 1968 by Mark Kurlansky. They are all of interest but when ‘1996’ appears, don’t expect a review. I didn’t like anything about that whole decade.
Anyone remember the Rankin Bass animated special ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year’? Part of the story involves a visit to an archipelago called The Islands of Last Year. Every year has its own island. At this rate, every year will soon have its own book too!
The danger here is overemphasis. It says ‘1966’ on the cover so whatever happened that year will have to be more significant than anything that happened in 65 or 67. Jon Savage generally avoids this trap by starting each story where it actually began and noting how it progressed in 1966. He still has to make the case that this was the key moment. Sometimes this falls a little flat. It’s hard to not to see the Watts Riots of 1965 as a more significant tipping point for African Americans in the 60s than anything that happened in 1966. Savage more or less acknowledges this but works very hard to make a case for ‘66 as the year that civil rights started to go militant. He runs the same line with student politics in California. I couldn’t help but think that 1965 had a better claim in both cases.
I felt the same way, at points, about the music. Savage suggests that 1966 is the year that pop became rock. I’ve often made similar claims for my birth year. I sleep in a t-shirt that says 1966 and features a picture of Mick Jagger. The funny thing is that song by song, it does pale a bit in the face of, again, 1965. I kept thinking that I preferred other singles by the Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who than the ones from that year. But I hear you crying, “what about Blonde on Blonde, Something Else, Aftermath”?! Good question. Dylan barely surfaces here. The Beatles are quiet too. How can this be? The answer is in Savage’s approach to history writing.
He doesn’t spend much time on albums because he is trying to present 1966 as it appeared in 1966. The rock album was, arguably, born that year but the significance of that birth was still a year away with the release of Sgt. Pepper. In retrospect, there is no doubt that 1966 looks pretty good for music. Revolver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds are usually in the top ten of any list of greatest albums but Savage is keen to avoid that kind of retrospection. It’s one of the strengths of the book but it raises questions about history and historiography that are just too damn big to cover here. The point is that 45s still dominated the market in 1966 so it makes sense to look at them, rather than albums. There has probably been enough yap about those records anyway!
The book moves through the year chronologically and thematically. May, for instance, is about women and the earliest stirrings of second wave feminism. This structure works very well and the attention to detail is impressive. He looks at magazine articles, news events, films, documentaries, radio broadcasts, and novels from the period to create a vivid and accurate picture of each month. I was reminded slightly of Franco Moretti’s vast reading project where he read every single crime novel in a 10 year period so that he could make a real, rather than speculative, determination about the genre.
Some of these chapters are more convincing than others. His evocation of homosexuality in 1966 is particularly well done. The Tornados ‘Do you come here often?’, is widely thought of as the first ‘gay’ pop song – for those who missed the subtext of Tutti Frutti and countless other 1950s singles. Joe Meek, the legendary producer of this song, had begun his long slide into the madness that would end in his death in 1967. Like Brian Epstein, he led a secret life and had been subjected to arrest and blackmail attempts over the years. The laws were changing but it was still a difficult time to be gay in England. The chapter also picks up the story of San Francisco in that year. The Gay rights movement, in most people’s minds, begins with Stonewall in 1969 but Savage shows that it was already crystalising in 1966.
It’s ridiculous to criticize a writer for stuff that isn’t in the book. I once read a review of Ashley Kahn’s study of A Love Supreme where the critic mainly moaned that Impressions was a better album. Okay, maybe (not) but the book was about A Love Supreme! So here I go:
I loved this book and I think Jon Savage is a real historian. Compared to many music writers who rely on clichés about the 1960s, he has used primary sources exclusively here and produced a very significant book. However, I couldn’t help thinking that a section or two on events and music outside of the UK and the US would have really closed the deal. I kept waiting to hear about the following: Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in that year; the formation of Os Mutantes in Brazil; the music scene in Toronto that produced so many big stars; the extraordinary pop scene in Cambodia. I don’t want to be like the grumpy Coltrane fan but the world was, in McLuhan’s terms, becoming a ‘global village’ by 1966 and most of the events in the UK and US were mirrored in other places. Others may be able to point to music related events in Africa or even the Middle East. Please point!
But this is minor quibble about a major work. Jon Savage’s book on the Sex Pistols, England’s Dreaming is a key text on that band and the period in general. I suspect that 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded will become one of the definitive books on the 1960s and, hopefully, will set a new standard for the writing of rock and roll history.
Teaser: Too many to list but Savage is particularly good on Dusty Springfield and Andy Warhol.