1966: The Year the Decade Exploded
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
“When did music become so important?” an exasperated Don Draper asks his younger wife in a fifth-season Mad Men episode, set in the fall of 1966. Don’s wife responds with a copy of the Beatles’s Revolver, which had come out that August—but Don is so unmoved by what he hears that he shuts off the hi-fi in the middle of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
As if in answer to the frustrated ad man’s question, veteran English music writer Jon Savage now weighs in with 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, a 600-page chronicle of the breakthrough moment when “music was no longer commenting on life but had become indivisible from life.”
The book is made up of twelve essays, one for each month of the year, each starting from a particular pop single and then radiating outward through related themes and current events in both the U.S. and the U.K. Ranging from chart-toppers to flops and B-sides, the tunes are meant to illustrate Savage’s thesis that ’66 was the high-water mark for a culture of “ambition, acceleration, and compression”—a zeitgeist characterized, in the words of one awestruck eyewitness, by “everything happening simultaneously.”
It’s an ambitious strategy that takes in vast swathes of social history. In Savage’s telling, SSgt. Barry Sadler’s infamous “Ballad of the Green Berets” dominates the U.S. charts at precisely the time, early in the year, when widespread ambivalence about America’s war in Vietnam crystallizes into meaningful opposition. Wilson Pickett’s summer smash “Land of 1000 Dances” is pegged to a week-by-week recounting of the civil rights movement’s forward momentum—and to the race riots that were already engulfing American cities every year once the mercury shot up.
So far, so good, but do we really need another monument to the glory that was ’60s music? Certainly—if it contains as many novel perspectives as Savage brings to this endlessly worked-over period. Women artists like Dusty Springfield and Norma Tanega receive equal time with the Beatles, and that’s even before you get to the real rarities that provide some of the book’s choicest material. An obscure B-side engineered by the British impresario Joe Meek, “Do You Come Here Often?” is revealed to be a gay goof, an inside joke for a tiny band of cognoscenti. From there Savage not only delves into the state of gay rights in an emphatically still pre-Stonewall era, but also explores how the psychic fissures opened by the most progressive pop—specifically vanguard singles by the Who and the Rolling Stones—played a part in wider social liberation. (As the Who’s bassist John Entwistle tells an interviewer, “I mean, ‘I’m A Boy’ is almost a queer song.”)
Savage is best known for England’s Dreaming (1991), his galvanizing firsthand history of the British punk movement. 1966 doesn’t quite vibrate with that book’s you-are-there immediacy, but Savage makes adroit use of primary sources, weaving parallel storylines into a single fast-moving narrative that gathers force from month to month. His talent for crisp musical analysis, familiar from scores of liner notes over the years, is still in evidence too, as in an aside about the “cow-pasture rhythm section” of Tommy James and the Shondells. Only once in this large volume does his trademark lucidity seem to desert him: the September essay hops back and forth between events in Los Angeles, London, and Amsterdam so rapidly that it’s not always clear where the principals are at a given moment, and their relation to one another feels less like a question of intrinsic affinities than of the author’s effort to make a point.
The 1966 of 1966 winds down at a moment of major transition. Mods are giving way to hippies, LSD overtakes pills as the drug of choice, and a new musical style, rock (heralded by fledgling acts like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience), is rapidly supplanting more radio-friendly, singles-driven pop. There’s a nice irony here in that this emerging culture will later become what the punks in England’s Dreaming are so eager to overthrow. But to his credit Savage avoids the knowingness of hindsight, and not only with regard to music. In a book that conveys the disorienting effect an ever-accelerating electronic media culture had on a great many people, I noted exactly one instance of the word “computer.” On the other hand, Savage is careful to note the significance of Ronald Reagan’s being elected governor of California in November 1966, which made me think of a line from the late Jenny Diski: “We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit.”
But that pessimism is contrary to the spirit of 1966. As he did in England’s Dreaming, Savage has produced a big book that captures what it’s like to be alive at a moment of maximum cultural ferment. And while it’s true you can look up from either book and cast a jaundiced eye on our present moment, you can find lots of other things in these histories too—and not just for your next playlist. Role models; calls to action; and, not least, a gauntlet thrown down for later generations.
JEFF TOMPKINS, a writer and comics artist in New York City, is the Online Content and Community Manager for the Library of America.