A short history of the sixties
“The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.”
For anyone interested in the cultural and music developments of the 1960s, Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s is a must read (the book title refers to the 1967 song My White Bicycle by Tomorrow, which was about Amsterdam’s community bicycle program). Full of incredible anecdotes as well as precious insights, it highlights less-known aspects of the 1960s music business and its protagonists.
Boyd was a key figure himself. As a tour manager he organized concerts for artists like Muddy Waters, Stan Getz and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He was also responsible for the sound at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan confronted the audience with his controversial electric set. Furthermore, he went on to become a successful record producer, working with bands such as Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd.
From blues to folk and beyond
In his book, Boyd describes the blues boom of the sixties and its increasing appeal to white audiences, which marked “the end of the natural life of the form.” As he puts it: “No white person in America in 1964 – with the exception of me and my friends, of course – knew who John Lee Hooker was.”
He goes on to chronicle landmark events such as the Newport Festivals between 1963 and 1965, which saw the rise of Bob Dylan as Woody Guthrie’s heir and his subsequent turn from political song to a “decadent, self-absorbed, brilliant internal life.” Boyd is even willing to provide the exact time slot of this major shift: “Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965.”
Revolution and disillusionment
Moving on to the cultural scene amidst swinging London, Boyd recalls: “In 1966 the world was changing by the week. (…) Soho that year was like the steppes in AD350, with Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns queuing up to pillage, destabilize and eventually take over the Roman Empire.” There is no doubt for the prominent role of the English capital: “New York would never have moulded Hendrix’s genius into as powerful a pop persona as London did.”
Boyd describes the music of the early Pink Floyd as “the soundtrack for the Underground” and likens the choruses of Syd Barrett’s songs to “fertile planets in a void of spaced-out improvisation.” For him, one of the most enduring images of the whole era was that of “the four Floyds bent together over their instruments in concentration while purple and turquoise bubbles of light play over them.”
As for the unprecedented commercial success that followed in the post-Barrett era: “Pink Floyd’s success is difficult to analyse or explain. What they brought with them from Cambridge was all their own; London in 1967 just happened to fall in love with it first.”
Parallel to the music-driven narrative in White Bicycles, Boyd also illustrates vividly the optimism, idealism and progressive tendencies of the time: “Despite differing notions of what the revolution was about, an atmosphere of agape was pervasive in 1967: people were fundamentally quite nice to each other. (…) What London witnessed in the spring of ’67 was more than an endorsement of a new musical style, it was a mass immersion in the sub-culture that gave rise to it.”
Interestingly, he is also careful to demonstrate the other, darker side of this eventful period: “Beneath the surface, the progressive sixties hid all manner of unpleasantness: sexism, reaction, racism and factionalism. (…) The agape spirit of ’67 evaporated in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure. In Amsterdam, people started sealing and repainting the white bicycles.”
In conclusion, Boyd’s White Bicycles makes for some fascinating reading. Next to the impressive parade of (more or less) famous musicians featured in its pages, the author also refers in passing to a variety of topics from Cuban music to the downsides of digital recording. Personally, I found extremely valuable the abundance of references to artists and recordings I had never heard of before, and enjoyed greatly reading about the background stories to some of the best music ever made (as in the chapters on Nick Drake, which are particularly rewarding).