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The Sixties


By Alex Brown




Without doubt, the 1960s can be seen as one of the most eventful decades of this century in political, social and cultural terms. During that decade there were major social, political and military crises together with radical changes in the cultural scene in Western Europe and the United States.




Several factors came together during that period to force cultural and political crisis on Western Countries:


1.      The link between many of these crises was the Vietnam War (1961­1975) where the United States fought a savage and increasingly unpopular war against Communist forces in both North  And South Vietnam.


2.      The rise of a strong Black Civil Rights Movement Led by Martin Luther King against racial discrimination in America.


3.      By the 1960s the standard of living of the American people had risen dramatically, but the conservative social attitudes and conventions had not changed very much from the 1940s/50s. Protest against the war and conservative politics became associated with a more  self‑confident, radical and educated youth culture centred usually in the big universities. In  Europe too the universities became the focal points for the protest  movements.

4,      A whole range of new and radical forms in art music, fashion, film and social conventions appeared in the early 1960s which clearly distinguishes that period from any other.

5.      These new cultural styles were seen as a COMMENTARY ON, ALTERNATIVE TO ‑ AND A FORM OF PROTEST against the materialistic, conservative and outdated values of  Western society in the early 1960s. Radical culture was seen as a way of exploding these values and bringing them into line with the new social and economic realities: consumer  society and youth  culture.

6.      An important new analysis of society was that of FEMINISM which developed out of the anti‑war, civil rights protests of the Sixties which identified male aggression and dominance  as  central causes of social and military conflict.


Many of the military crises of the period were part of the Cold War hostility between the Capitalist and Communist worlds. While the USA and the Soviet Union could not fight each other directly with nuclear weapons, they provoked each other by using small third countries as their proxies (substitutes). In the USA, street demonstrations and political assassinations made this the most critical political decade since the American civil war in 1861. Some examples of these crises are given below:


1.      Building of the Berlin Wall (1961)

      The East Germany government builds a wall across the whole city. Tension increases between East and West Europe.

2.      The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

         The world was taken very when President Kennedy ordered the Russians to take their missiles out of Cuba. After a tense few days, the Russians agreed to withdraw them.

3.      Assassination of President Kennedy (1963)

         President Kennedy was assassinated while visiting Dallas, Texas.

4.      Assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968)

       American Black Civil Rights leader is shot in Memphis. A few months later, Robert  Kennedy, President Kennedy's brother is shot in Los Angeles.

5.      Major anti‑war/civil Rights demonstrations world wide

   From Washington, USA to London, to Tokyo, anti‑Vietnam war street demonstrations take place between students and police. The students also demand democratic 'participation' in running their universities. In many cases police are called to clear students out of university buildings which they had occupied and considerable violence occurs.


6.      Russian Invasion of Czechoslovakia

         Czechoslovakia, a country inside the Communist bloc tries to produce more liberal and democratic policies. The Russians and other Communist states invade the country and re‑impose a dictatorship.

7.      Student Revolt in Paris

        Student demonstrations in Paris against university conditions (and influenced by American anti‑war protests) widen out into a general protest against French conservative politics and values. Supported by young workers, the students take over central Paris and battle with  police. A general strike is called and the government is forced into crisis and finally offers concessions.




The economic expansion of Western economies had produced the first real Consumer Society. This brought with it a dynamic advertising and marketing apparatus which produced the most powerful graphic images in order to stimulate sales. Along with TV and cinema production, a whole popular visual world was being consumed AND ENJOYED by the population. Radical artists compared the popularity of these images with the lack of interest shown in 'high art' and KULTURE. They sought to produce a truly popular art called POP ART. This style had several obvious sources:


1.    Surrealism


The clash of familiar images in strange relationships (like dreams) had been developed as an art movement in the 1920s. The relationship between the subconscious mind, desire, psychology and advertising techniques had been known for some time before.


2.    Television and advertising


The continual stream of powerful, creative images and techniques appealing directly to the unconscious mind in the advertising and media world (outside Art) offered source material for artists themselves.


3.    The influence of 'Pop culture' (fashion, music)


The explosion of Pop ('popular') culture in the 1960s: Rock and Roll, cinema heroes, teen idols, 'flower power', pop fashion, record cover graphics, blurred the edges between 'serious' art and popular culture and lifestyle.


4.    The 'need' to 'get to the public' with familiar images


Artists were aware that ART was no longer important or meaningful to the great mass of the population. If art had anything important to say, it had to appeal to the people with images which were familiar, drawn from ordinary life and from popular culture.


Pop Art is short for 'popular art'. When Andy Warhol paints Coca Cola bottles, Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup tins and so on, he is using familiar subject matter. BUT, he changes their colour or multiplies their number to make them slightly strange or different. He offers an unusual experience with familiar objects. He is an artist. There are major similarities here with Surrealism.




By 1958 in the United States the raw Rock 'n Roll sounds of the early Fifties had given way in many cases to soft, teen pop sentimental ballads.


By 1962, in Britain, however that early Rock 'n Roll plus original Black Rhythm and Blues sounds had been imported from the States and remixed into a very original, much 'harder' and explosive new music which re‑took America by storm. British groups dominated the American music industry. In particular the BEATLES, followed by the Rolling Stones, The Who and (later) Led Zepplin.


(This creative competition in Rock music between the UK and the USA continues to this day and has been extremely good for the development of the music).


By 1967, music and alternative culture were being influenced by the American 'Flower Power' ideas, style, poetry and philosophies of the Hippie Movement which started in San Francisco and by the protest songs of the Anti War Movement. "Peace and Love" being the Hippie slogan.


Influenced by Eastern philosophies (and in many cases, drugs), the tragedy of the Vietnam War, and a growing confidence in its own possibilities, Rock music became more complex and serious in style and content. The best example of this change new direction is the production of the Beatles' 'Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band' album of 1967.


Compared to previous Beatles' albums or anybody else’s, the production was so complex and adventurous in lyrics, music and production techniques that it became a milestone in rock history.


Even that most American of groups in terms of image ‑ the Beach Boys ‑whose harmonic California SURFING sounds had made them a top group, became influenced by the changes taking place in Sixties music generally and the Sgt. Pepper album in particular. Brian Wilson, the group's writer admitted that he was forced to completely re‑think his music when he heard the Beatles' new album. His creative response was to produce the brilliant track 'Good Vibrations"


Groups like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Mothers of Invention, Country Joe and the Fish, Cream and most particularly The Jimmy Henrix Experience together with the brilliant lyrics and more Folk/country style of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Crosby Stills and Nash produced a very sophisticated range of music that dramatically extended the boundaries of what Rock music could express.


In 1967 at the great rock concerts of Monterey and Woodstock half a million people celebrated and all the symbols of the 1960s alternative lifestyle came together: rock music, peace & love, long hair, drugs, flower power, multicoloured Kaftans, beads, anti‑war badges and painted faces. For that brief moment it seemed as if society had really changed..


Black Music: Although in the Fifties American Blacks had owned and run their own radio stations and record companies, they had been limited in their appeal to the Black community. In 1960, however, Berry Gordy, Jr. a Black car factory worker set up the Tamla‑Motown label in Detroit, the main car production city ‑ thus 'MO‑tor‑TOWN). He produced such stars as the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations and so on. (Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson of today are the descendants of that original MOTOWN sound.)


For the first time, Black artists were topping the charts in the USA and the UK and, again Black music (apart from R & B) had become very influential across the record‑buying world. The Supremes, (with Diana Ross), for instance had three gold discs in 1964 alone: 'Where Did Our Love Go?', 'Baby Love' & 'Come and See About Me'


Discotheques began to appear for the first time in the 1960s and the Black Motown sound was perfect for dancing and helped in the success of the company. Technically superb and with excellent artists and writers, Gordy's Motown had carved out a unique and powerful Black musical culture by the late Sixties which still continues.




The link between music and fashion had now been well established. Together with the Beatles, the UK exported its fashion styles to the USA and elsewhere.


The 'Swinging London' of the early Sixties produced the mini‑skirt, high-top boots, pointed shoes, collar-less jackets and flared trousers, bright graphics, Mary Quant fashion, jewellery and cosmetics, fashion boutiques ‑ all with a clear visual connection to the Consumer Society and mass market style of Pop Art: bright, gaudy, eye‑catching, sometimes plastic, FUN, throwaway items.


By 1967, however, the Americans were again influencing fashion across in Europe with the ALTERNATIVE Hippie, Flower‑Power styles of flowing kaftans, Afro hair styles, bright flowered shirts, beads and mixed image clothing styles. This supposedly 'eastern' influenced style was the opposite to the bright 'plastic', consumerist styles of the British.




Committed by Kennedy in the early Sixties to being first in the space-race against the Russians, and after a huge investment in money and skill, in 1969 the Americans landed on the Moon.


Neil Armstrong was the first human to put a footprint on the Lunar surface. As he was coming down the ladder from the lunar landau, Armstrong said these words, "One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind".




With half a million soldiers committed in Vietnam and for all the demonstrations and protests the Vietnam War continued. In 1968 the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive against American positions in South Vietnam (the TET Offensive). Although the Americans defeated it, the shock of the attack made many more Americans realise that they could not win this war. This plus the grim fact that thousands of American soldiers were being killed made the war increasingly unpopular and costly.


Culturally, Western society absorbed the new social conventions thrown up during the Sixties. What had seemed radical and shocking in the early sixties became highly marketable and acceptable by the late Sixties: Rock Music, dress styles and a new more relaxed set of social conventions became part of the mainstream culture buy the beginning of the Seventies.





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