The pop music you hear in your teenage years affects you more deeply than at any other time in your life. People who don’t go on to develop an obsession with pop may pine for the hits of an objectively bad year for music – say, 1960, 1975 or 1997 – because of the power of associated memories. But 1966 is different. Almost no one would dispute that it was one of pop’s greatest years, whether they lived through it or not; it was the fulcrum of the decade that created the most upheaval and innovation.
Change had been accelerating fast since 1963, a breakthrough year not only for the Beatles, but for Tamla Motown and the Beach Boys. Moptops were grown out, love songs discarded, cross-pollination and collision created novelties on an almost weekly basis. Pop culture – art, movies and music especially – was now moving so fast it could only splinter and shatter.
Jon Savage was 13 in 1966, so he’ll remember it well. Savage wrote England’s Dreaming, published in 1991 and still the strongest history of punk, which covered a similarly fast-moving flash of time. 1966 upturns history in the same way as his last hefty book, Teenage, which traced the roots of teddy boys, skins, goths and mods back to New York and London in the late 19th century. Teenage is written chronologically, but with 1966 Savage wrong-foots us from the beginning. Rather than open with a major hit record from January – say, the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”, or the Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep on Running” – he focuses, for several pages, on an obscure Birmingham group called the Ugly’s and their unnerving nuclear warning “The Quiet Explosion”.
The choice of track sets up Savage’s conceit that 1966 was a year in which there was little solid ground, with the twin clouds of Vietnam and the threat of nuclear war creating “a morass of fear, confusion, resignation, hopelessness and anger”. This was as true for revolutionaries as it was for conservatives. Savage singles out Karel Reisz’s film Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which was marketed at an audience keen for a celebration of the youth, fashion and new wealth of swinging London. Starring David Warner as a long-haired working-class artist married to upper-middle-class Vanessa Redgrave, it follows Morgan’s gradual breakdown as his new-found classlessness clashes with his Stalinist upbringing.
Shifting sands and the new language of pop created room for women to become producers as well as consumers. Savage points to the rise of the fashion brand Biba and the ITV pop show Ready Steady Go! on the one hand, but to the lack of prominent women in civil rights movements on the other. How liberated were female pop stars in 1966? The term “sexism” simply didn’t exist. A woman couldn’t even open a bank account without the approval of her husband. It’s also easy to forget that what now seems familiar as high 60s fashion was seen by many as peculiar at the time. Dusty Springfield collapsed more than once under the pressure; even in a cafe, she said, the public’s eyes would follow her fork to her food, then up to her mouth, then back again.
Amphetamines kept pop stars like Dusty going on gruelling tours, and new drugs were becoming available. LSD was all but unheard of at the start of the year, “something so new that there were few rules”; it created sensations “beyond the understanding of most humans”. What’s more, the drug was still legal in early 1966. In April, an American group called the Dovers released a single about taking acid. Called “The Third Eye”, it was a barely filtered experience, a window into another world, more frightening than enlightening. How could easygoing teen magazines such as Fabulous and Rave react to songs about and informed by acid? Most, if not all, of their writers had never taken it. Riding a wave of interest in the new drug, an LSD party was filmed by the BBC in July for a current affairs programme called 24 Hours. The People newspaper got hold of the story before the show was broadcast and printed, scandalously, that under the influence of acid “men danced with men”.
While the Beatles’ lysergic meditation “Tomorrow Never Knows” was one barely comprehensible pointer to the future, the tempo of some of the year’s biggest records reflected the pace of change more blatantly: on the soul scene, there was Wilson Pickett’s breakneck “Land of 1,000 Dances”; from the LA rock scene came Love, whose “Seven and Seven is” was 90 seconds of frenetic drumming and barked, berserk words that climaxed in a nuclear explosion. Others, hardly surprisingly, were trying to slow things down, trying to stop time (soothing balladeers such as the Seekers and Val Doonican were huge in 1966), or even to reverse it – that is how Savage explains the extraordinary success of the New Vaudeville Band’s 1920s pastiche “Winchester Cathedral”.
He is strong on the year’s unlikely hits. “Winchester Cathedral” won the Grammy for best song (beating the likes of the Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops), and the biggest selling single of the year in the US was the largely forgotten “Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. There had been protest hits that alluded to Vietnam (notably Barry McGuire’s almost comically bleak “Eve of Destruction” in autumn 1965), but Sadler’s record, in a bluff attempt to counterweight the conversation, marked the moment when the war became inescapable, and not only of interest to long-hairs and folkniks. The lyric is cyclical and desperate; the dying soldier’s wish is that his son should follow him as a Green Beret. “As an expression of the martial mindset,” writes Savage, “it is without peer.” Sadler’s record helped to push the US president Lyndon Johnson’s approval ratings up to 67% – there’s the potency of cheap music for you.
1966 is an absorbing and extremely easy read because Savage is a pop writer in the truest sense. He is quick and to the point, he doesn’t waste words, bottling an over-familiar song with maximum thrill and minimum fuss: John Leyton’s Joe Meek-produced “Johnny Remember Me” is an “eldritch spasm”; of James Brown’s extraordinary “Tell Me That You Love Me”, he says “the words are nothing, they don’t matter. What does is the way that Brown drives the beat as though everything cannot come fast enough.” Savage believes that “the other side to this chaotic tumult showed the year’s secret heart”, and it was to be found in “the all-pervasive but fragile sadness” of Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang on to a Dream?”.
Hardin’s miniature masterpiece was only a pirate radio hit, but darkness and doubt did bleed through into the charts. When TV shows run through Christmas No 1s of years past, Tom Jones’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” always sticks out like a sore thumb, a blear country song about a man returning to his childhood home that was No 1 for seven weeks over the 1966 Christmas period and well into January 1967. How did this happen?
A fortnight before it came out, more than 100 children had died in the Aberfan mining disaster; the country was in deep shock. In the pre-Band Aid era, before charity records were the norm, “Green, Green Grass of Home” was bought as an act of remembrance, somehow blending “How Green Was My Valley” and a funeral dirge. In Jones’s hands, the song sounded more Welsh than Appalachian – it had “a death-haunted lyric that offered some surcease within a nation still coming to terms” with Aberfan, “reminding everyone of lives cut short and the impossibility of going back”.
I’ve never heard anyone make the connection before. This is not only fine pop writing, but social history of a high order. You can only hope Savage has already started work on 1967.
• Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé is published by Faber. To order 1966 for £16 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.