The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism

In the past few weeks I have been reading widely about the 1960s Counterculture both here and in America. This interest was inspired by two things. Writing an account of My Life in Music, which included my experience of the Counterculture in Leicester, and visiting an exhibition of sculptures by Francis Upritchard at Nottingham Contemporary and seeing James Riley’s talk about the perceived end of the Counterculture into “bad craziness” in the early 1970s.

My original piece was just based on memory with no reference to any other sources but I was struck by how close my experience was to the sequence of events described by James Riley. I was also intrigued by Francis Upritchard’s description of hippies in New Zealand when she says that “all the things that hippies hoped would happen, or felt might happen, didn’t.” In one sense her exhibition is about the failure of the 1960s and 70s counter-culture that is still celebrated at festivals – and its gaudy, individualistic “alternative” aftermath.

At this point it might be worthwhile to describe what I think the Counterculture is (or was). The Counterculture appeared in the 1960s both in the UK and America and became influential throughout the Western World and also in Eastern Europe. It’s protaganists were mainly young but there were significant influences from older artists and intellectuals. It’s not really clear why or how it came about but it epitomised what became known as the Generation Gap. This could be described as the difference between people who became adults before World War 2 and those who were adults after it.

Jeff Nuttall in his seminal book Bomb Culture(1968)  thinks that alternative attitudes in the UK grew out of the shadow and fear of the H Bomb. As the Cold War developed there was a constant reminder with the proliferation of nuclear weapons that the World could end any minute. This lead to massive demonstrations in the UK organised by CND (The Aldermaston Marches). Although these were attended by many thousands of people it became clear by the early sixties that the government had no intention of disarming or stopping the arms race. This lead to disillusionment and a feeling of alienation. Many young people began to reject the growing Affluent Society and started creating their own culture much to the bewilderment of the older generation who, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said at the time, had “never had it so good”. A youth subculture emerged called The Beatniks by the press. They grew their hair, played trad jazz and folk music, frequented coffee bars and hitchhiked around the country, influenced by American beat writers like Jack Kerouac. In the UK this is where the Counterculture had it’s roots. Here is an unintentionally hilarious TV report about Beatniks in Cornwall in 1960:

Of note in this film is the playing and singing of Whiz Jones. You may think he is influenced by Bob Dylan but you’d be wrong. It was two years before Dylan’s first album was released, he hadn’t even arrived in New York by then. The guitar and singing style was undoubtedly learnt from American folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who was in England at the time and influenced a whole generation of British guitarists including Donovan (he was also a big influence on Bob Dylan!).

The roots of the American Counterculture are slightly different. Although there was the same fear of nuclear annihilation especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the Soviet Union based nuclear missiles in Cuba within easy reach of the USA. Another factor was the Civil Rights Movement that was working to end racial segregation in the South and also the Vietnam War especially when conscription was accelerated from 1964. Out of this milieu a counterculture was created that eventually became what are known as Hippies. This movement had a profound effect both in America and the rest of the World during the 1960s and it’s legacy has continued until now as I hope to demonstrate.

The UK and American countercultures influenced each other. Initially, the British counterculture imitated the Americans especially in the areas of poetry and the creation of Underground newspapers and magazines. As time progressed the British started influencing the Americans especially in the areas of art, fashion  and music. The Beatles became the most popular and influential group in the World and embraced many countercultural ideas like drugs, mysticism and experimentalism. Paul McCartney was closely linked to the English Underground and was a main financier of the International Times, an important countercultural paper that had a wide distribution. Pink Floyd emerged out of the British Underground with their take on psychedelic rock and, again, eventually became one of the most popular groups in the World.

The name Underground started to be increasingly used for the Counterculture although, really, this was a misnomer. The main players and self styled leaders were media savvy and natural experts in self promotion.  (This was especially true of American Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They achieved international fame at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial where the American justice system managed to appear both brutal and ridiculous.  In a rare display of humour a member of the conventional left described their antics as Groucho Marxism!) It never really became underground until the 1970s when the mainstream media and press began to lose interest in it.

The Underground did not have a coherent political agenda. Although there was much talk of Revolution it was not clear what this really meant. This was true both in Britain and America. It definitely did not mean the same thing as what the old left referred to . The Communist states were seen as no better than the Capitalist ones and probably worse. Even Cuba, apart from the love for Che Guevara (who in the spirit of rock n roll died young and left a good looking corpse. He became the poster boy of the Revolution with his long hair and revolutionary beret!) was treated with suspicion. There was no strict ideology but general beliefs in the use of drugs (particularly marijuana and LSD), rejection of alcohol, free love, anti-war, anti-materialism, anti-consumerism, individualism, creativity, opposition to alienating work, rejection of television and advertising, caring for and living with the natural environment etc. The list could get very long and forms a general philosophy which is hard to formally categorise. The Revolution consisted of all these things. Slogans appeared that would have done justice to the best copywriters of Madison Avenue like “make love not war”, “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “do your own thing”.

So, why did the Revolution fail and where did it go wrong? Conventional wisdom would say that three events in 1969 caused a massive shift in attitudes. The infamous Charles Manson murders, The Woodstock Festival and the killing of a member of the audience by Hell’s Angels at Altamont Free Festival. The death of 60s idealism and the lost innocence of rock n roll is the theme of Don McLean’s song American Pie.

Charles Manson and his Family inverted the ideas of a hippy commune and went on a killing spree based on a psychotic interpretation of the Beatles White Album.

Woodstock is widely seen as the epitome and apotheosis of the Love Generation but can also be seen as the start of a megalithic, bloated and commercial music industry involving large scale festivals and stadium gigs. In order to attract popular acts large amounts of money were paid. Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have received $50,000, an incredible amount at the time equivalent to more than half a million now. Joan Baez virtually destroyed her credibility by accepting $10,000 even though she was using much of her own money to support radical causes. The festival made a colossal loss although that was recouped by subsequent sales of the film rights and DVD. A very interesting book about the making of this festival is Barefoot in Babylon by Robert Stephen Fitz. Rather than the music being an expression of the Counterculture a new commercial aristocracy was formed. The divorce between the music and the Counterculture was perhaps most symbolically shown when Pete Townshend of the Who knocked Abbie Hoffman off the stage with his guitar when Hoffman invaded the stage and tried to make an impromptu speech. It affected both people for years afterwards and effectively ended Hoffman’s political career. The clown prince of politics had been made to appear ridiculous and ineffective! Pete Townshend showed he wasn’t too enamoured with peace and love as this audio clip shows.

To deflect criticism of the cost of tickets on their 1969 tour of America the Rolling Stones gave a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California. This remarkably badly organised festival has become immortalised in the film Gimme Shelter (No, the Revolution wasn’t televised but it was often caught on film, which provided a good source of income from “Free” Festivals. The Stones had already done this with the Hyde Park Free Festival). The general air of chaos and violence is palpable with at least three deaths and a murder.

However, I don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom. Nor do I think that the Counterculture ended in 1969. As James Riley has said these events could just be coincidence and don’t signify anything. Personally, I think that after 1972 the Counterculture actually did go Underground. It was no longer really visible and it also became separated from the Music Industry which had become a large and profitable globalised industry. The press and media also lost interest  until it gained notoriety again in the 1980s as the Peace Convoy and the New Age Travellers. This culminated in the savagery and brutality of mainstream culture under Thatcherism at the Battle of the Beanfield. This is an Observer article about this event twenty years later:

* Tony Thompson, crime correspondent
* The Observer, Sunday 12 June 2005

It looked just like a carnival – at first. The weather was sunny and music played as the 140 vehicles set off towards Stonehenge. The 600 or so Travellers were on their way to attend the annual free festival on squatted land beside the ancient stones.

A few hours later the convoy had been ambushed by more than 1,300 police officers; dozens of Travellers were injured, all but a handful were arrested, and every one of their vehicles was destroyed.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Despite four months’ planning, the police operation to stop the convoy was a shambles. Faulty police intelligence suggested the Travellers were armed with chainsaws, hammers, petrol bombs and even firearms. All this information was false.

Plans to stop the convoy near the A303 collapsed when a convoy outrider spotted the roadblock and directed the travellers down a side road, where they encountered a second roadblock. After a first wave of violent assaults by the police, in which windscreens were smashed and the occupants dragged out screaming, most of the vehicles broke into a neighbouring field, derailing the police plan further.

For the next four hours there was a standoff, while Assistant Chief Constable Lionel Grundy, the officer in charge, insisted all Travellers had to be arrested.

The final assault began at 7pm, by which time all the officers had changed into riot gear. Pregnant women were clubbed with truncheons, as were those holding babies. The journalist Nick Davies, then working for The Observer, saw the violence. ‘They were like flies around rotten meat,’ he wrote, ‘and there was no question of trying to make a lawful arrest. They crawled all over, truncheons flailing, hitting anybody they could reach. It was extremely violent and very sickening.’

When some of those remaining tried to get away, driving their vehicles through the beanfield, the police threw anything they could lay their hands on – fire extinguishers, stones, shields and truncheons – at them in order to bring them to a halt. The empty vehicles were then systematically smashed to pieces and several were set on fire. Seven healthy dogs belonging to the Travellers were put down by officers from the RSPCA. In total, 537 people were arrested – the most arrests to take place on any single day since the Second World War.

All those arrested were charged with obstruction of the police and the highway, but most of the charges were dismissed in the courts. The Travellers’ unexpected saviour was the Earl of Cardigan, whose family owned the forest where the convoy had stayed the night before. Cardigan had tagged along out of interest, and his descriptions of the violence prevented what might otherwise have become a major miscarriage of justice.

Cardigan recalled that in many cases ‘the smashing up of the vehicles and the instructions to ‘Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!’ and hand over your keys were given simultaneously and therefore there was no chance to understand what was being shouted at you, and to comply before your vehicle started disintegrating around you with your windscreen broken in and your side panels beaten by truncheons and so on.’

It remains a mystery why the police felt compelled to use such violence. With evidence that radio logs of conversations between officers on the day have been altered, the full story may never be known.

‘The Battle of the Beanfield remains a black day for British justice and civil liberties,’ says Andy Worthington, whose book on the event is published this week. ‘From the anti-Traveller legislation of the 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act to the current hysteria surrounding Gypsy and traveller settlements, the repercussions are still being felt.‘”

The 1986 Public Order Act caused many New Age Travellers to leave England to more tolerant places like Spain and New Zealand. Interestingly, the hippies that Francis Upritchard came across may have been refugees from this time.

Margaret Thatcher was an enigma. Behind the authoritarian Iron Lady facade she wasn’t even really a Tory. She is considered to be the first of what are called conviction politicians. She appeared motivated by a mission and set of beliefs. Tony Blair and David Cameron have also used this approach and in some ways are seen as her successors. Thatcher’s beliefs had more to do with 19th Century Economic Liberalism than traditional Tory concerns. Her mission was to restore the British nation to it’s former glory and roll back the tide of National Debt, Trade Unions holding the country to ransom and encourage Free Trade and Private Enterprise. She famously hated the sixties and virtually saw that period as the main cause of the country’s woes with it’s strong Trade Unions, Nationalised industries and Social Liberal values.

Margaret Thatcher was ruthlessly effective and she chose her battles well. By defeating the Miner’s Strike and legislating against the Closed Shop she seriously reduced the power of the Trade Unions. At the same time she closed down most of the old heavy industries like steel, ship building and coal mines. By deregulating the banks, Privatising Nationalised businesses like energy and telecommunications and giving council house tenants the Right to Buy she effectively created a new capitalist society which boomed on the back of investments, services and rising house prices. It seemed to work so well that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War political economist Francis Fukuyama declared “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”  Mind you, considering events that happened in 2008, this was probably a bit premature!

But, I would still contend that the ideas of the 60s Counterculture permeated this period. As I have already said, Hippie ideals were resurrected with the Peace Convoy which was attracting many people to it, especially the legion of unemployed created by Thatcher’s early policies. But the ideas had also influenced the mainstream. The new bankers and brokers of the “Greed is Good” years were not the conservative bowler hatted bores of yesteryear but cocaine sniffing, champagne swilling hedonists who roared round London in new Porsches. They were into conspicuous consumption and, dare I say, a rock n roll life style. Also, the type of entrepreneurs that Thatcher was trying to encourage already existed in businesses started in the 60s. Although not British, clothing store chain The Gap, started as a “head shop” in San Francisco. Global business Time Out started when Tony Elliot took over the listings page from International Times because no one else could be bothered to do it! It became an immensely profitable business. Perhaps the most well known business with counterculture roots was Richard Branson with his Virgin brand. This started off as a mail order record company in the late 60s. All of these businesses brought a more relaxed, casual style and in the case of Branson a kind of celebrity status that would never have happened in the past. Basically, countercultural ideas had been assimilated by the mainstream.

However, the real Underground continued both in the Peace Convoy, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and more recently with the Occupy Movement which has become a global phenomenon. I will say more about this later!


7 thoughts on “The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism

  1. Magnus January 2, 2013 / 1:21 pm

    Thanks for this interesting account Kenny

    • Kenny Wilson January 2, 2013 / 8:29 pm

      Thanks Magnus. Glad you found it interesting.

  2. Alan White January 13, 2013 / 4:53 am

    This is an interesting and thought-provoking piece. For me the end of the Sixties, once sweet but turning sour, was marked by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix (September 18, 1970), Janis Joplin (October 4, 1970), and Jim Morrison (July 3, 1971), preceded by the accidental death of Brian Jones (3 July 1969) and the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends by Manson and his gang (August 9, 1969). The idea that psychedelic drugs could “open the doors of perception” seemed wrong: instead it either led to confusion and self-destruction or, worse, to mania, aggression and the macabre.

    Ideas of the musician as a social revolutionary also faded: this change was personified by the slow fall of the initial figurehead, Elvis Presley, after his willing acceptance of military service (1958-1960) and his career later in commercially-driven films in Hollywood. (Presley’s role as the epitome of “teenage” rebellion had been prefigured by film actor James Dean, who died a year before Presley’s commercial breakthrough in 1956, but it was not a role Presley sought or proclaimed.) By his death (August 16, 1977), Presley had been replaced as a progressive figurehead by John Lennon, who survived him by just three years before being murdered in New York (8 December 1980). The gentler side of pyschedelia was snuffed out when Marc Bolan died in yet another rock-and-roll car crash (September 16, 1977), just as punk got under way.

    Punk Music in Britain – anti-authority, anti-middleclass conformism – represented the most aggressive form of Counterculture; it ignited in 1976 but had already burnt out by 1980, the year bands like Joy Division broke through. The political authority figures they reacted against were those of the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan, the last before the Labour Movement was crippled by Margaret Thatcher. (It was Callaghan who celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the target of “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols.) Chiefly characterised by cynicism and disillusion with the old organised Left (the proverbial “middle-aged hippies”), the punks opened the way to the Conservative victory, as much as business owners resentful of the trade unions.

  3. Gaius Appleseed September 5, 2015 / 2:14 am

    Fear of the bomb compounded by inevitable nuclear accidents.
    Mostly ignored in pop culture nowadays.

    Great blog. I stumbled in researching the Free Press underground of yore….

    • Kenny Wilson November 13, 2015 / 1:04 pm

      Thanks for visiting. Glad you found it useful.

  4. Mark Zinan April 5, 2016 / 12:13 am

    Thanks for the article. I was born in 57 so not a product of the 60s per se. Peace, Love, and Understanding. Maybe my generation just wanted something different. I love reading about it.

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