In the song ‘All the Young Dudes’, David Bowie gamely tried to reassure the youth of the Seventies that, despite what their Sixties elders were always telling them, they hadn’t been born too late after all. On the contrary: it was the ‘brother back at home with his Beatles and his Stones’ who was missing out.
Sadly, for those of us growing up at the time, even Bowie at his most thrilling wasn’t quite as persuasive as we’d have liked. OK, so it was definitely annoying to be surrounded by people banging on about how great the Sixties were. But once we’d heard the music, there was an uncomfortable sense that they might also be right.
Four decades later, the banging on continues — although these days in a rather more elegiac way, as the era of pop music being a major cultural force perhaps comes to a once-unthinkable end. On Sunday, for example, BBC4 brought us Arena: 1966 — 50 Years Ago Today, based on a book by Jon Savage and co-written by him and the director Paul Tickell.
Not surprisingly given that provenance, the programme was firmly from the chin-stroking end of the cultural-studies spectrum, with a solid emphasis on the avant-garde and only the odd sheepish acknowledgment that in ‘a year of relentlessly stylistic experiment’, the bestselling singles were by the likes of Jim Reeves and Ken Dodd. Much more to Savage and Tickell’s taste was the Destruction in Art Symposium held in London and featuring, among others, the Viennese Actionists, who specialised in ‘performances with dead sheep and humans smeared with entrails’.
The programme was also weirdly grim. Personally, I’ve always imagined that 1966 was quite a good time to be young — but apparently I was wrong. The atomic bomb, we learned, ‘cast its chilling shadow over everything’ (as proved by a fantastically obscure single by the Ugly’s called ‘The Quiet Explosion’). The archive TV clips showed us the fabled Wednesday Play entertaining viewers with tales of ECT, homelessness and bourgeois oppression — together with discussions in which cigarette-puffing beardies claimed that ‘we are creating a society inimical to human fulfilment’.
All this was clearly intended as a counterpoint to the usual Sixties stuff full of short-skirted lovelies swinging their handbags or driving about in union flag Minis. The trouble was that by going so far in the opposite direction, it ended up not only feeling wildly overstated, but also giving the surely false impression that nothing that happened in 1966 was any fun.
Another lack was historical context. Happily, though, some of that had been supplied the previous night by Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species (BBC2), in which the Stones’ guitarist reflected on his childhood in the Forties and Fifties. On the whole, Keith’s tone was of rich amusement at how vanished a world it was, complete with food rationing, bombsites as playgrounds and Saturday morning trips to the Dartford Gaumont. And with Julien Temple as the director, his memories were duly matched to pitch-perfect footage.
At times, the effect was not unlike the reminiscences of any genial old grandad — albeit one who’s unusually indebted to black and hippie slang. Recalling his days as a choirboy, Keith proudly declared that ‘We could alleluia with the best, man.’ Remembering the first gig he ever saw, by Joe Brown and the Bruvvers, he pointed out that ‘Those cats were hot, man.’ Add in his heartfelt tributes to his parents and extended family, and the result was — oddly for a celebrated hell-raiser — quietly but utterly charming.
Meanwhile, back with chin-stroking reverence, 1966 was preceded by Classic Albums, The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds — a record from the same year that, according to the programme’s chief rock critic David Wild, marks the moment when ‘rock and roll becomes a religious experience’.
Fortunately, when not assuring us again and again how marvellous Pet Sounds is — and what a genius its prime begetter Brian Wilson then was — Sunday’s documentary rounded up an impressive number of Beach Boys (Brian included), backing musicians and engineers to give us an exhilarating explanation of how the album was made: I’m beginning to think that my favourite telly trope of all is when a grizzled old muso pushes forward a slider on a recording desk to show us exactly what, say, the flutes were playing deep in the mix.
And of course, there was the sheer beauty of the music itself — a beauty somewhat lost on the record label. Worried that the album wasn’t commercial enough (no surfing songs, for a start), Capitol insisted on that embarrassing cover photo of the band feeding some goats and released it only reluctantly, with a greatest hits collection nervously following a few weeks afterwards. Still, the Beach Boys did have the last laugh when Pet Sounds went platinum — 34 years later.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.