Wednesday, 4 January 2017

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION (Records and rebels 1966-1970)

At the Victoria and Albert Museum  between 10 September 2016 - 26 February 2017

I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum recently to see the exhibition about the social, political, artistic and economic revolutions that took place in the late 1960s. This was a nostalgic experience for Marilyn and myself. We were teenagers in the 1960s,  the most developmental period of our lives, both emotionally and physically  . The revolutions that happened in the 1960s were very important to us, shaping our ideas, and responses to life. This personal connection with this period is a perfect example of why understanding and engaging with history is so important to the human condition. To develop as humans, we need to reflect. Understanding the past is a form of reflection and the study of history is a collective reflection.

I remember the 60’s; however the saying goes that some people who lived through those times don’t remember anything, for various reasons. I remember doing my o’levels in a small school in Shropshire and learning about General Wolfe in 1759 fighting the  battle of  Quebec; The South Sea Bubble , its causes and its implications, about Clive of India, the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions, a time which was  marked by a period of revolutions, echoing the time  this exhibition relates to. I remember reading 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell and Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Laurie Lee's, Cider With Rosie and John Berger’s, Ways of Seeing and later on , when I was training to be a teacher, The Comprehensive School by Robin Pedley.  These books, in conjunction with what was going on in the world shaped my political, and social views and shaped my emotional life too. I remember, in my mid-teens, going in a coach with a group from the school I attended in Liverpool at the time, to Liverpool Cathedral, the Protestant one, for an interfaith service and experienced Ian Paisley leading a mob of Northern Ireland Protestants in a noisy and boisterous chanting of anti-Catholic slogans and beating the sides and windows of our coach with their placards. That was thrilling.  After I finished school at the end of the 1960s I wore flared Levi jeans, my hair grew long and bushy, I grew a beard of sorts and I listened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix and Dylan and  so many more. I remember reading the poetry of Ted Hughes, visceral stuff and that of Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, George Macbeth , John Wain and Philip Larkin. The Second Vatican Council took place between (1962–65). That changed the format of the mass and prescribed a physical structure for how any new Catholic church should be built to fit in with the new thinking about the mass. Pope John XXIII advocated, what was thought of, as a more liberal approach to religion.Women were given a slightly, some might say cosmetic, higher profile role within the church. They could be ministers of communion.They were allowed to read the Epistle and some of the prayers during mass.Pope John XXIII advocated a more questioning approach to religion. It seemed to me you could question as long as the answers were what the church advocated.  He did not go far enough for many and too far for others. He was anti-abortion and anti-contraceptives but advocated more natural forms of birth control. This  has caused arguments ever since within the church and society as a whole. The Catholic Church remains an authoritarian patriarchy to this day. Abortion and the pill, freedom of thought, student rioting in Paris and in London against the Vietnam War; the more I sit here and think the more I remember and try and work out what it all meant and what it means now.
I remember all these things that crowd my thoughts in a sort of jumble. It was confusing at the time and even now I struggle to make sense of it. A lot of this stuff made my early life a challenging thought provoking time. My beliefs and the way I thought about life to begin with were influenced  by my grandparents beliefs and stories of their past, my parents views and the life they lived, the Catholic religion that I was imbued with from an early age and its very powerful strictures on the way to live and think. The Catholic Church was epitomized for me by Cannon Ibbit , my local parish priest in Woolston and the De La Mennais Brothers who taught me at St Mary’s College in Bitterne Park. They were benign to some extent and supportive but their guidance always lead directly to the rules of the church.There was no wavering from ,"the straight and narrow."These revolutions were powerful counterweights to these influences and my learned responses to life. This new way of living was presented in the news, the way people all around started to dress and behave, in books, in the cinema, in the music I began to listen to, in attitudes and in what people spoke about. Have you noticed that your inner thoughts and impulses remain hidden because they don’t fit what with what you have always been told. Even though you are thinking and feeling them, until you hear of others’ experiences, you can’t acknowledge them without them causing some sort of pain and rupture within you. Once you know others  think like you and are forming ideas similar to yours its like being given permission. Then you feel liberated and not alone in your inner responses and you can then permit yourself to  think and do the things you were becoming  aware of. We do need permission to do, say and believe things and it often takes others braver than ourselves to say and do these things first.
The exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum  charts the history of this time. It looks at social changes that included experimentation with drugs to enhance our minds, new ways of living, creating new social orders within communes and new economic models based on adapting to the  world in more harmonious ways. There were new concepts of communication. Cultural changes happened in music, drama, films, writing and art and a rewriting of history from the points of view of ethnic minorities, women and the working classes. Political changes included civil rights, women’s liberation, anti war movements,  education, and the creation of  new political movements. Many of these experiments have continued and  led to ways of living, doing, thinking and believing that we have now. Some experiments were disastrous such as the experimentation with mind enhancing drugs. The good effects were far outweighed by the detrimental effects. Music has gone on to develop through more and more synergies, the coming together of music  from various cultures. This is also seen in  the development of art and literature, developing new ways of seeing and thinking. Politics has changed, through new ways of communication and people feeling free to challenge, ask questions and promote alternative ideas.  Barriers to real meritocracy and equality still remain such as the two tier system of education we have, the private sector and the state sector. Womens employment still has glass ceilings and poor working practices which hamper their development within organisations. Consumerism has taken over much. There is a monitory price on everything.  It seems that we need a market economy for things to exist.
This exhibition uses three different texts from three different periods  to show how revolutions in thoughts, ideas, ways of living and politics are not just about the 1960s and that the new ideas that came to fruition in the 1960s were influenced by ideas from ages past. It is five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s,” Utopia ,” in which inhabitants of a fictional island reject intolerance, personal gain and property, and instead find peace and contentment as part of a community.” 

Three hundred years after More’s, Utopia, William Blake wrote “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” He raged against,” mind formed manacles,” and commented, “ if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Perhaps the use of LSD in the 1960s was  about the search for the same sort of enlightenment. 

The third text was written at the start of the 1960s. “The Port Huron Statement,” It addressed the cold war, the nuclear arms race, and called for the democracy of individual participation. It called for the means for the individual to participate in the social decisions determining the quality and the direction of his life.

The exhibition portrays Britain and America at this time but more specifically London  and San Francisco. It shows the sharing of social, political and musical ideas. The traumas created by US politics and its involvement in South East Asia are covered. It displays the counter culture and underground movements in music, art and the marches against racism, especially in the US south and the anti-Vietnam War marches in London and Washington and the student protests in Paris. It portrays the new youth cultures in the use of drugs, clothes, experimental living, music, art and writing. 

There is a large section in the exhibition focused on the Beatles and their development of new styles including the use of transcendental meditation, LSD, Indian influences from Ravi Shanker and their exploration of different sounds and instruments. The exhibition shows this through their musical transitions from   Revolver, Rubber Sole to Sgt Peppers. They wrote love songs, protest songs and music derived from the use of LSD. There were jokes and biographical memories included in their work. The Beatles moved from live performances to working in the studio and this helped in creating these developing styles. The development of their music was something they would not have been able to do to such an extent if they had concentrated on live performances. I always think it is a thrilling experience to see original drafts. To see the fresh, immediate creation just as it was made, gets you close to the creator and the creative process. John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for, “Tomorrow Never Knows, “is displayed. There are the handwritten lyrics for Lucy in The Sky with scribbled corrections and crossings out.
This extract from a poem entitled, “On The Move,” by a young poet, Thom Gunn, encapsulated the youth of the time.
A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self defined astride the created will
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither bird nor holiness
For birds and saints complete their purposes
At worst one is in motion; and at best
Reaching no absolute in which to rest
One is always nearer by keeping still.

Today we can see how things have developed. The internet has created a sort of universal “mind,” something that LSD failed to do. It was the students coming out of the universities of the 1960s who invented the internet. Those who began APPLE and GOOGLE, created ways of communal working  where creativity and sharing ideas, a counter culture concept, formed and grew these great organisations of today. Music and fashions were freed from the constraints of the past  and they have continued to develop and be continuously creative. However  consumerism has attached itself to what has developed  and all these countercultural concepts and ideas have in many ways been brought into a new main stream culture of business and wealth. Some of the most tenacious parts of the old order have remained . We still have a class system in this country controlled by an education system split into private and state. Some people would like to destroy the National Health Service which although begun soon after the second world war in 1948 was a forerunner of freedoms dreamt of that developed in the 1960s. Big business and government want to keep the majority poorly paid on low incomes. The next big change seems to be coming from the right wing. Donald Trump has been voted into the presidency of the United States. Britain has voted to leave Europe at a time of austerity under a right wing government. I wonder where things are going to go from here?

It is interesting to see who the sponsors of this exhibiton are; Levis, the company that made the trouser choice of the 60s. Sennheiser,  provide the sound systems for the exhibiton. It is worth wearing the headphones that are provided. Walking around the exhibition is a musical experience, a continuous soundtrack of music from the sixties with appropriate music tracks connected to each part of exhibition.The Kinks ,”Waterloo Sunset” for ,”Swinging London,” fashion and the counter culture. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,”recalling Vietnam. That one  sends a chill down your spine. The largest exhibition room, its floor spread out with Indian patterned cushions to sit on, is a surround sound and filmic experience of the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals provided by Sennheiser. Sassoon, the creative hairdresser who started in the 1960’s who cut Twiggys hair  also recalls the fashion of Barbara Hulanicki and BIBA and Mary Quant.  Fenwick, the store company which started in the late 1880s and owns many of our High Street outles delivering the fashion of today also contributes. The Annenberg Foundation is a main sponsor too through its charitable trust and its belief in personal freedoms and the creation of outlets for the expression of creativity and the provision of free public facilities. It sponsors free public broadcasting and has promoted education, the arts and created places such as community beach houses, wetlands restoration projects and much more. Walter Annenberg who began the foundation was The American Ambassador to Britain under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Pete Townsend of The Who performing in 1968 at the first Isle of Wight festival.

And finally..................................ME AS I WAS THEN!!!!!! (God help us all!! Ha! Ha!)

The New Poetry (Selected and introduced ) by A Alvarez (Penguin 1962)
 The Comprehensive School by Robin Pedley  (Pelican 1963)
You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966- 1970  edited by Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh  ( (Victoria and Albert publishing 2016)
Bary McGuire ,”Eve of Destruction.”
The Kinks, “Waterloo Sunset.”        


  1. I loved reading this! I've always been fascinated by this era (just like the Regency) and I've always thought it would have been amazing to grow up in the sixties. As a kid, I used to rummage through my mum's childhood bedroom and look through her old magazines, clothes, letters (don't tell her!) and other things. It must have been exciting to grow up in such a revolutionary period. I love The Beatles, too, and need to do a tour of Liverpool soon. Glad to hear you were a fan, too! By the way, I saw Ravi Shankar in his last ever concert in India a few years ago, will never forget.

    Hope you had a lovely Christmas and New Year!

  2. Tony, thanks for sharing this exhibit with us. This is one I'd love to see! I wish we still had some of our Made in the USA Levis. It was very sad to me when they sold out and started moving their operations overseas. Love the as-you-were-then photo!

  3. Loved this post. I would have loved to have lived in the sixties, being a massive fan of the Beatles and I have always found the era fascinating. As a teenager, I remember rummaging through my mum's old stuff, her Beatles chewing gum collectors album and reading through her letters...(don't tell her that)...browsing through her old mags and wearing her vintage clothes which were again fashionable in the 90s. Would love to see the exhibition, although I might have to give preference to the Jane Austen one at the British Library..

  4. Thanks for reading the article, Jean and Anna. I felt attached to this exhibition. It provided a lot of memories and much to reflect on.