Jon Savage

Cultural critic Jon Savage speaks about his latest book '1966: The Year the Decade Exploded'. The title, which follows his previous works like 'Teenage' and 'England's Dreaming', is a detailed and unique account on why 1966 became the most significant year in pop culture

It has been half a century since 1966, a year heralded by author Jon Savage as a pinnacle period of pop culture. It was a year that saw events such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and threat of nuclear attack reach boiling point, all of which took place against a melting pot backdrop of music, cinema and youth movements from the US and UK.

The experience of 1960s pop was listening to five awful records before you got to one you liked

Savage’s latest book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded is a unique and detailed history, spreading over 653-pages, on why the year became so significant. A sharp-eyed observer of pop culture with a boundless energy for his subject, Savage is the author of similar books England’s Dreaming (1991), a history of punk, and Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture (2007), which charts the rise of the teenager in the West.

When speaking about his reasons for writing 1966, Savage explained his desires to move on from the period he covered in Teenage, the years between 1875 and 1945.

“When you do a book, you inhabit the topic,” he says. “So it meant that I spent a lot of time in the second and first world war. I went to the Imperial War Museum to do research and was there for two days. At the end of the first day, I just came out and vomited into a bush because it was so upsetting.

“I thought well, I don't really want to do that again. I don't want to write a book about that period. Where do I want to be? So I thought, 1966.”

Aged 13 at the time, Savage describes 1966 as a “peak moment” for getting involved with popular culture. Aside from offering an insightful history, 1966 is also an attempt to explain this moment, as well as providing Savage with the opportunity to write about the music that he loves.

Why was 1966 a peak moment for you for getting into pop?

Well, I was really attuned to pop music from the age of nine when I started listening to Del Shannon and the Beatles. That was 1963. I was able to see the 1960s as it happened really – on telly anyway. I would watch Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go every week.

We couldn't believe how restricted things
were in the 1950s and 1960s

Also, I was a pirate radio addict. Pirate radio is an incredibly important part of the story in that period. There was very restricted airtime for pop music on the BBC. So the pirates stepped in and you had 24-hour pop. It was fantastic.

And you were tuning in?

Yes, I had my little transistor and was obsessively listening to pirate radio. Because I was a school boy and doing exams and things, adolescent rebellion hadn't started. 

At the same time, I was listening to James Brown records. I remember I Got You I Feel Good or Along Comes Mary by the Association. I remember being very affected by those records.

Were you living in London at the time?

Yes, my parents lived in Ealing, west five.

Did you notice visible changes, like in the way people dressed?

I was very attuned to pop, even though I couldn't participate. I was too young and my parents were quite strict. Don't forget this is the mid-1960s, it's 50 years ago.

I'm a 1950s child. In fact, I was just talking with some friends of mine the same age and we couldn't believe how restricted things were in the 1950s and 1960s. And how little stuff people had. I look back and can't believe it. Was it a film? Did I really experience that?

I'm interested in the present and the future. I find even though my work is in the past, dwelling in the past is rather depressing.

I'm so bored with the endless personal commentary;
do some research for fuck's sake

I was talking with a friend of mine and said, "God. I have a picture of my grandparents house, and they were reasonably well off. My grandfather was a builder and he had his own building firm. There was nothing on their walls." Not because they weren't cultured. It was just that people didn't have stuff.

Everybody forgets this. You're dealing with a period of scarcity of information. This is very important. So, one of the things I say in the book, which is very important, was that the 1960s experience wasn't like Austin Powers. You weren't surrounded by classic 1960s hits on a three-CD compilation you could buy for five quid on the car stereo going down an imaginary King's Road.

The experience of 1960s pop for people like me was listening to five awful records before you got to one you actually liked. So the one you liked had an even greater impact.

Actually, as you ask, living in Ealing, it was a big mod centre and also the place where there were the R&B clubs. So it was a hip suburb. I remember noticing people wearing clothes. There was a local group called the Eyes and they had billboards all over Ealing Broadway tube station. 

I remember looking at these billboards and they were all dressed up in rugby shirts with big eyes on them. I thought that was pretty cool.

Is the book about showing the reality of that year and breaking the stereotypes?

Yeah, ideally. Because people are so lazy about this stuff. Writing about pop music now is seen either in terms of generational nostalgia or personal experience.

The pop culture of the 1960s was basically rocket-powered; it was so intense and fast moving

Although we're talking about my personal experience, in fact, it is not an autobiographical book. I disapprove of overt autobiography – unless it is an autobiography. I'm so bored with the endless personal commentary. Do some research for fuck's sake.

One of the things that is the basis, the spine of the book, is the pop press of the period. I'm a magazine freak. So I went back to Record Mirror and New Musical Express from the period. In fact, people don't go there. 

If you read a lot of histories, and you see a lot of those TV programmes, it relies on second-hand information. Or, as I said, personal experience. A lot of it is very dull.

I wanted to talk about what was going on in the world at that time. If it wasn't directly reflected in the music, it was obliquely reflected. What I got from those records that I write about, there's a kind of freedom. And I wanted to look seriously at what that freedom was.

There were all these liberations going on at that time: civil rights, feminism, the start of a very hidden gay movement. So, it made sense for me to do that. It's a different way of looking at it, as opposed to other cultural historians who seek to present it as nostalgia or part of a continuum. It was actually a period of extraordinary change. I wanted to emphasise that.

You mentioned earlier about throwing up while researching about teenagers during the First and Second World Wars.

Don't forget adolescents got sent off to war and killed. Two million adolescents were killed during the First World War.

During 1966 there were also a lot of paranoias and worries.

The pop culture of the 1960s was basically rocket-powered. It was so intense and fast moving. I thought, why did that happen? It's not just a question of money or the music industry; there's something else.

You have several very powerful dissolving agents in British and American culture at that time. Every period has its big fear. I presume the big fear now is climate change and/or terrorism and/or surveillance. That's what your generation is worried about. 

The late teens and early 20s is a powerful time; you're coming in the adult world and, with any brains, you can see what's wrong with it

When I was growing up, the big fear was that you were going to get atomised by a nuclear bomb. That was the big fear. That's why I begin the book with that chapter because if you think you're going to be blown up tomorrow, which was a very real fear for a lot of people, then you might as well live today and hang the consequences. 

That kind of enforced existentialism actually was part of the rocket fuel of the 1960s. Another part obviously was drugs; another was the Vietnam War; another was also the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement.

I find that my ability to engage with culture is affected by news of conflicts and disasters around the world. It's hard to not question whether you are living in a cultural bubble sometimes.

Of course you are. But we are all kind of in bubbles. Each generation has its own task. Your task is very different to my generation's. The task of my generation was to deal with Second World War damage, that's what we were all about really. 

We were living in the wake of the Second World War. Our parents were trying to construct this ideal world. I lived out in the suburbs where nothing happened. And that was fine. That's what my parents wanted. But it wasn't what I wanted.

What's different now is that my parents didn't understand pop culture at all. Obviously now you have a generation in which your parents were probably involved in pop culture.

There's also a lot of information now.

Almost too much I think.

Culturally, it seems hard to pin down what is going on. People are incapacitated by the weight of this information.

I think that's a huge problem. I don't know what the answer is. In a way, that's your generation's struggle. I think all of what we were talking about came out of a period of scarcity. That is entirely different now. There's so much information. In some ways that's great. In other ways, that isn't.

Do you see any similarities between the youth now and in 1966?

As I said, I always think that the late teens and early 20s is a powerful time; you're coming into the adult world and, with any brains, you can see what's wrong with it. If you've got any spirit, you'll try to do something about it in a small way or a big way. That's a powerful moment.

Things really are so different now, but the spirit is the same. I'm always very, very hopeful and confident about youth. Particularly that age range, coming up with solutions to the problems that they perceive. Which is what people were doing in 1966.

What happened in 1966 was that you had a mass youth culture that was becoming very progressive and experimental and adults didn't know what was going on. It was happening in plain sight, these extraordinary records were selling millions of copies.

The spirit of things and what is relevant today is that perennial spirit of youth and the actual treatment of pop music as being implicated in its time and place.

To me, that's very important and it's something I've always sought to do it because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a whole invested interest in this country of people denigrating pop music and not taking it seriously, but it's another form of communication. It's not like news, it reflects much of what people are thinking and feeling.

The great thing about pop music is that it affects all the senses. Music is a fantastic form of communication.