It’s hard to believe (and for some of us it’s going to be even harder to accept) that next year it will be 50 years since the start of the 1960s… but it’s true: the decade of counter-culture and social revolution, of excess, indulgence and perpetual youth, is now officially… old.
One of the first institutions to point this out is the National Portrait Gallery, which has just unveiled a photographic celebration of leading pop personalities of the era – a time when London turned itself from a crumbling city, struggling to drag itself out of the rubble of World War II, to the psychedelic capital of the world…
Jack Watkins took a trip to see Beatles to Bowie: the 60s exposed.
There’s a school of thought, mainly to be found among social commentators of the fogeyish variety, that the 1960s were the years when Things Started To Go Wrong. Alternatively, for those of us with a deep interest in popular music and culture, there’s near unanimity that the decade was A Good Thing.
Beatles to Bowie: the 60s exposed instinctively assumes the latter viewpoint, and pitches you straight into a photographic cavalcade of the years when the British pop scene jumped from being a weedy adjunct of showbiz, largely controlled by impresarios years older than the stars they managed and totally out of step with the era’s youth, to a multi-million pound international industry, its leading protagonists’ every move reverentially noted and indulged in a manner spared only for royalty a century before.
At first, musically speaking, the 1960s looked like they’d be no different from the last years of the 1950s. In the United States, the early rockers had been safely neutered – Presley by going off to join the army and then having his individuality muzzled by Hollywood, Jerry Lee Lewis by marrying his thirteen year-old cousin, and Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran by getting killed in fatal road accidents. Back in Blighty, we had Cliff Richard, who could throw a wicked pout, but was really no more threatening than your pet goldfish. Then there was Billy Fury, a sort of hybrid of Eddie Cochran handsomeness and Gene Vincent physical frailty, who looked promising, and Johnny Kidd with his pirate’s eye patch, but by and large these brylcreemed ‘stars’ looked like the sort of blokes who sang in the club at weekends and worked in the garage during the week. The girls, such as Petula Clark and Helen Shapiro, just looked… well… nice.
One of the agreeable things about this exhibition is the way that it splices the decade up into individual years, so aficionados can plot the gradually changing scene and the emergence of their favourites. By 1962, it is clear that at an underground level things were changing, with the Mersey Beat paper in January of that year headlining with The Beatles’ victory in a reader poll, and pretty boy Marc Bolan – then Mark Reid – featured in Town magazine bravely wearing lipstick and talking about his love of fine clothes and looking good. Even so, later that year when the ‘Stars from the Hit Parade’ went on a national tour, The Beatles were just a support act to Helen Shapiro and yodelling Frank Ifield.
The Beatles, 1964 © Robert Whitaker
It was the photographer Michael Ward who took the Fab Four for a walk down onto Liverpool docks in 1963 and, snapping the lads with their hands in the pockets of their leather jackets, collars turned up against the chill, helped kick off a trend towards less manicured images of pop idols. Hitherto, studio shots were the norm, the performers little differentiated from film stars.
Then, later that year, came a celebrated shoot with the young photographer Fiona Evans. John, Paul, George and Ringo were shown leaping about in the ruins of Euston Road, which was undergoing a period of serious post-war rebuilding. Viewed retrospectively, these pictures seem to symbolise a young-thinking new era rising out of the rubble of the old one.
Pop music, it should be said, though, remained essentially polite. The show’s section on 1963 has Gerry Ramsden – a grin as wide as the Mersey – leading his Pacemakers good naturedly down a children’s slide. The Rolling Stones are pictured up against the railing of a church on Chelsea Embankment. No chains are to be seen, but the point is implicit – we won’t let these rough-looking white boys do your daughters any harm. Only The Animals let the side down, pictured, in 1964, outside a pub called – yes, you guessed it – The Rising Sun.
Swinging London was ‘officially’ deemed to have arrived in 1965. Most famously it was defined by a cover article in Time the following year, which even featured a map showing the boutiques, nightclubs and art galleries that epitomised it. ‘In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings, it is the scene.’ An unfortunate corollary of this burst of energy was the arrival of silly articles that defined celebrity ‘in’ crowds, only surpassed in absurdity by ones opining on those who were ‘out’.
By the latter half of the 1960s, the boundaries of pop were blurring with those of fashion and art – the overblown album covers of the Beatles and the Stones straying into lurid pop-art territory and over-indulgence. Groups that succeeded them in the last years of the decade were not so much pop stars as rock artists. The descent into pretention and the alienation of performers from their audiences becomes ever more apparent as Beatles to Bowie progresses.
David Bowie, 1966 by David Wedgbury © NPG
What’s great about it, though, is how so many Brit poppers of the time get a look in or a name check somewhere. Here’s Georgie Fame outside the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street, where he and the Blue Flames gave so many scorching performances. A little further along the wall are Manfred Mann, Them, and the impeccably attired Small Faces, English pop lyricists par excellence. Marianne Faithfull is to be seen in fabulously louche pose on a bar stool in The Salisbury pub in St Martin’s Lane.
In the background, throughout the show, without being its star, are images of David Bowie, who’d been there from the mid-60s, initially as a kind of Anthony Newley sound-alike. Jon Savage, who co-curated this show with Terence Pepper, describes Bowie as the quintessential 60s pop star, although in reality it would be the 1970s which would belong to him. Now that’s another exhibition to look forward to…
Beatles to Bowie: the 60s exposed runs to 24 January.
See www.npg.org.uk or call 020 7306 0055 for more info