“Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were sitting behind us. The talk of the festival was that they might join Dylan on stage.”
The organisers of the 1969 Isle of Wight festival, brothers Ronnie and Ray Foulk, had managed to pull off the amazing coup of getting Bob Dylan to headline. Woodstock, which had taken place two weeks earlier on his doorstep in upstate New York, had tried to persuade him but he’d turned them down. He’d been in semi-retirement for three years after a motorbike accident, and this was his comeback.
In this picture, we’re waiting in the VIP area just below the stage for him to come on; it took about two hours because there were some problems with microphones. The chap sitting next to me is Vernon Warder, my boyfriend of the time. He had long holidays from art college and was working at the festival, doing artwork for the signs on the front of the stage, and helping with security and management. As a result, he had a VIP pass and, being his partner, I got one, too. Otherwise it was £2 for a ticket.
I was aware that Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were sitting behind us. The talk of the festival was that they might join Dylan on stage. It never happened. I was a huge Beatles fan, but had not seen them live; I kept turning round to look at them. We were about three rows from the front and could smell the hash that someone was smoking behind us.
When Dylan finally came on, he was barely 10 feet away from me. It was so exciting. He played for only an hour, for which he got some stick in the press, but it was incredibly exhilarating. He did two encores.
After he finished, I went back to my parents’ house on the island, where I grew up. Even though I had been away at college for two years, there was no way they would allow me to stay out all night. I remember it was a real struggle trying to find a lift, because we didn’t have cars and couldn’t afford taxis.
Throughout the festival, I went back and forth between the VIP arena and backstage. I once bumped into Lennon and remember thinking, “Oh, he’s not very tall, is he?” I remember being really excited about going into a portable toilet after Ono had been in there. I wasn’t even aware of the celebrities: Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Eric Clapton were all there. That’s how young and naive I was.
I first saw this photo last summer. Some friends of mine who live on the Isle of Wight went to the launch of Ray Foulk’s book, Stealing Dylan From Woodstock, his account of the festival. One of them texted me: “Were you sitting in front of the Beatles at the 1969 festival?” I said yes, and she wrote back: “Your photo’s in the book!”
This was my first festival. I went to the Isle of Wight the following year, when Jimi Hendrix played shortly before his death. I’ve been to others since, but nothing will match those two experiences.
Interview: Erica Buist (Guardian 5/8/16)
Next Sunday (27th September 2015) I am organising a night commemorating the 50th anniversary of the song “Like a Rolling Stone” and the album it is from “Highway 61 Revisited”, at the Musician Pub in Leicester. I’ve got a few days to go and I’m beginning to get a bit nervous now. Some of Leicester’s best are coming to perform their favourite tracks from the album and other songs from the other great mid 60s records, when Dylan decided to “plug in” (“Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde”). 50 years is a long time but the songs and music have not lost their power. In fact, to my ears, they seem even more startling and profoundly modern. Not only have they stood the test of time but they are in the pantheon of great 20th Century Art along with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, Jackson Pollock’s evocative splatterings and Charlie Parker’s mindbending improvisations. It had never been done before and it will never be done again. It stands alone!
Of the three great “electric” records “Highway 61 Revisited” is the pinnacle. It is the first Dylan album that he was part of a real band rather than a soloist with backing musicians. “Bringing It All Back Home” paved the way with some really exciting performances, especially “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” but half of it was acoustic although the songs were like nothing heard before. Dylan had rejected political protest and replaced it with a kind of explosive, image laden, nihilistic stream of consciousness. Popular music had never experienced anything like it. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” takes an Everly Brothers lick and creates a blast of vitriolic energy which is mindblowing: ” Old lady judges watch people in pairs, limited in sex they dare, to push fake morals insult and stare, while money doesn’t talk, it swears, obscenity who really cares, propaganda all is phony”. But, in this record he is still making sense. “Highway 61″ moves the song writing into a different realm. This is a world in which the songs seem to mean something but you can’t quite place what it is. ” Ballad of a Thin Man” epitomises this: “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”. A series of bizarre incidents follow involving sword swallowers, professors and geeks and how your imagination is being attacked! This is the ultimate statement of the Hip/Straight divide that was emerging in the growing counterculture of the 1960s. Most of the songs on “Highway 61” defy logic. They are absurdist and mysterious and yet seem to pertain to a deeper meaning that washes over us and draws us in. “They’re selling post cards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown, the beauty parlour is full of sailors, the circus is in town” and all through the song we learn that “Desolation Row” is either the place to be or the place you are prevented from going. “Right now I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row”.
Perhaps the ultimate Dylan song is “Like a Rolling Stone”. Bruce Springsteen described the beginning of this, the opening song on “Highway 61 Revisited”, as the “snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Folk singer Phil Ochs was even more rhapsodic about the LP: “It’s impossibly good… How can a human mind do this?” When I first heard this song I moved from being a fan of Pop Music to someone who wanted to play and write songs and that desire has never left me. That’s why I’m looking forward to the gig next Sunday and am also quite nervous about it. It is commemorating something that changed my life!!
I have recently got into making videos of the photos of some of my trips accompanied by music that has been important to me over the years. This includes tracks by the likes of the Velvet Underground, Country Joe and the Fish and Bix Beiderbecke. Quite a variety really. It is amazing how the music changes the way I look at the photos, and they seem to take on a different meaning. It’s quite an eye opener really.
The first one is of Essex and Suffolk when I went on a tour playing with my old friends, folk group Bodger’s Mate. It is accompanied by “I’m Coming Virginia”, one of my favourite tracks by Bix Beiderbecke from 1927. I’m amazed how well the music stands up. It could almost be contemporary. The guitar playing by Eddie Lang is incredibly subtle, considering it is the main rhythm part.
The next one is of the Old Town of Marbella with “Grace” by Country Joe and the Fish. “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” was one of my favourite albums when I was young, along with the even better “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die”. I first went to Marbella in 1971 and didn’t go back there until last year. It was virtually unrecognisable until I found the Old Town, which was actually the only bit that existed when I went there before, and it was just the same and the memories came flooding back.
The last one is of my photos of New York when I visited there in 2012. This was the first time I had ever been to America and I had a brilliant time. I went to all the places I had heard of when I first started playing the guitar and it felt like I had gone home. I think New York is the only place I have been where people seem to know what I’m talking about. Fantastic! Greenwich Village may have changed but it resonated with meaning for me. This is accompanied by “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground who were one of my favourite bands in 1968. It’s worth watching this just to hear “Sister Ray” all the way through although it is very long.
Kenny Wilson sings Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at The Cradock Pub Open Mic, Leicester U.K. 11th September 2013
This is the second part of my favourite albums of all time. You can find the first part here My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One.
6. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Astral Weeks is unique like many of the albums on my list. I’m not that much of a Van Morrison fan. I find most of his records fairly bland and stylised. I’ve heard most of them and am not that impressed apart from his early work with the seminal rock band Them. Here Comes The Night is a genius three minutes of pop and Baby Please Don’t Go is the essence of R&B. Astral Weeks was recorded and released soon after Them split up. As already said, it is unique and genre busting. Yes, it’s kind of jazz, kind of folk and kind of poetry but more of an amalgam of all three with a dose of unintentional classical music thrown in. How it ever came to be recorded by a major label is one of the wonders of the late sixties when good music came to be commercial. Or was it? It was quite a long time before anyone heard it or was aware of it. However, it ranks as one of the most creative records released by a commercial record company ever.
Without knowing the full details behind the creation of this album I feel that it contains the essence of a real sadness and sense of loss. I don’t know this, I feel it! It is like a folk/jazz equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with it’s evocative phrases and overwhelming sense of sorrow and psychic pain. This really IS the blues. Not the black American blues of the southern plantations and urban ghettos but the white blues of a psychologically dislocated Brit in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To add to the sense of alienation it was recorded in New York in 1968.
You know you’re in a different creative universe right from the word go. The first song Astral Weeks tells the listener that he is nothing but a stranger in this world and would like to be born again. The final song Slim Slow Slider describes a woman who has a brand new boy and a Cadillac but who is dying and every time I see you
I just don’t know what to do. The song ends in a blast of free jazz. Pretty bleak stuff!
In the meantime we have various shades of misery apart from The Way Young Lovers Do which is surprisingly upbeat and even optimistic. The real standout track is Madam George which in his Belfast/American drawl seems to sound like Madam JOY. He seems to plaintively be singing say goodbye to Madam JOY, wonder why for Madam JOY while the violins weep and intertwine around the three chord riff . Amazing stuff!!
7. Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan
Blonde on Blonde is a truly amazing album. The first double album in history with a price tag to match. How did anyone afford to buy it? I don’t know but I certainly couldn’t. I had to make do with the single releases until years later when I had a girlfriend who owned it. No, it wasn’t her only attraction!
This record continues the surreal imagery of Highway 61 Revisited but his voice has changed and the playing seems thinner and less aggressive. It was a thin, mercurial sound. When I first heard I Want You on a radio in Glasgow I thought it was a joke, a bad imitation of Dylan but I was wrong. I bought the single and soon realized it’s brilliance. The B side contained the rarely heard since version of Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues recorded live in Liverpool 1966. With screaming feedback and yelled lyrics it’s a complete contrast to the studio version.
Dylan in the 60s never stood still and he was a complete enigma. Not only did his voice change with each record so did the way he looked. It was like he was trying to stay one step ahead of everyone but he couldn’t, especially the growing army of crazies who were hanging on to his every word and before long were going through his garbage in search of even deeper meanings.
The real standout tracks on this album in my opinion are Visions of Johanna, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Just Like a Woman and I Want You but the rest is incredibly interesting. The anger has been dissipated and he is investigating relationships and general absurdity. He’s like the bastard offspring of Albert Camus lost in an absurd universe. In fact, throughout the album there is an expressed desire not to have to go through all of these things twice. A really brilliant record!
Dylan had the thin, mercurial sound but the Velvet Underground had the loud, distorted, grating sound delivered to perfection on this second album. Nico is no longer present and the soft, folky ballads have gone apart from the song Here She Comes Now. The rest of it is self-consciously anti-beauty. According to Lou Reed the producer, Tom Wilson ( who also produced Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone), was so pissed off with the cacophony of Sister Ray that he left the studio and showed them the record button and told them to do it themselves. Fantastic, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Although, Andy Warhol was no longer involved with the Velvets his influence is still felt with the extremity of the lyrics and the overall sound.
Although it sold few copies when first released it became one of the biggest influences on British Punk Rock. Apparently The Buzzcocks formed after members followed an advertisement looking for musicians who could collaborate on a Sister Ray cover.
Apart from the title song another truly great track is I Heard Her Call My Name which features uncontrolled guitar feedback accompanied with the cry of And then my mind split open by Lou Reed. It seems the band were disappointed with the recording of this because it didn’t match the energy or intensity of their live performance. Mercy!!
I actually bought this record when it was first released but I couldn’t convince many of my friends to share my love of it. In fact most of them thought it was terrible. How wrong they were!! Interestingly, Lou Reed was a very reluctant hero of Punk and, in fact, he had no time for it even though he is often presented as the ultimate Junkie Punk Persona. Many of his songs are quite complex both musically and lyrically and don’t fit into the simplistic barbarism of Punk. Okay, White Light, White Heat is the exception!
9. Hunky Dory by David Bowie
White Light, White Heat leads neatly into this album because David Bowie was a big fan of the Velvets. He featured that song in his live sets and even recorded it twice. He also references the Velvet Underground on the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory as an influence on the song Queen Bitch.
Hunky Dory didn’t sell much when it was released in 1971 but people in the right places were aware of it and liked it. Bowie says that it was the first album he made that other people talked about and were interested in. Until then he was a promising singer/songwriter who had had one big hit with Space Oddity. His record company still had a lot of confidence in him, obviously.
It is a surprisingly mature piece of work for someone who is still finding his voice. It ranges from total all out pop to introspective gloom. He includes songs about Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol which are hard to fathom. Are they hero-worship or sneering sarcasm? There seems to be a bit of both there. Andy Warhol looks a scream hanging on my wall, Andy Warhol silver screen can’t tell them apart at all. The sleeve is interesting in that he deliberately creates an androgynous image, based on a picture of Marlene Dietrich apparently. He is developing and extending the kind of cross-dressing and gender-bending that had already begun with Mick Jagger who wore a dress at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969. Bowie also wears a dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold The World.
This really is a seminal album that throws up all kinds of interesting things. When William Burroughs interviewed Bowie he said that he thought the 8 Line Poem was referring to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bowie professed to know nothing about T.S. Eliot but, almost certainly, went away and found out about him because he was so in awe of William Burroughs. Burroughs describes The Waste Land as the first cut-up poem, a technique that Bowie used in many of his songs.
One of the standout tracks is Life On Mars which along with O You Pretty Things illustrates one of the aspects I find most disturbing about Bowie’s work i.e. his flirtation with Nietzscheanism and the idea of the Superman. This idea features in many of Bowie’s songs e.g. The Man Who Sold The World, The Supermen etc. I’m not saying he is a Nazi but he comes dangerously close at times, especially when he gave a Nazi salute in Berlin in the mid 70s (he blamed it on the coke!). Oh you pretty things don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane let me make it plain, you’ve got to make way for the Homo Superior! Hippie ideology this aint!! And it’s all wrapped up in a fluffy pop package.
This is a brilliant record, though and gets better with each play. I particularly like the Bewley Brothers. This song has a sense of mystery and loss about a musical group who obviously make a big impact but maybe were never famous (or were they like the Beatles?). Like all good poems you can draw your own conclusions and read many different things into it.
This album became a hit after the success of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy made Bowie a big star but the standout record of this time, I think, is Hunky Dory.
10. GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons
I discovered this record in 1975 about the first time I met Ric Grech. I was running a folk club in the top room of the Town Arms, Leicester U.K.at the time where many aspirational songwriters turned up. One night Ric arrived in his Ferrari with a violin and joined in. He had recently arrived from America having just made a record with super-group KGB. Okay, why he left LA and came to Leicester I don’t know but he was in awe of Gram Parsons and was interested in forming a country group with Leicester musicians playing his ( Ric’s) songs which were actually very good. He had collaborated with Gram on his two solo albums before he inconveniently died (Parsons that is. Ric inconveniently died some time later!) and two of the songs are written by him Kiss the Children and Las Vegas. He also had Gram’s guitar, a Gibson Dove, with him.
Gram Parsons had a big effect on people he met. English musician and hippie doctor Hank Wangford became a country singer because of his influence. By proxy, through Ric, he became a big influence on the local Leicester scene where many people turned to Country which had previously been a much maligned genre and was considered reactionary, corny and simplistic.
Parsons is considered the inventor of Country Rock but this isn’t apparent from his solo records which are actually quite traditional in many ways. He certainly didn’t like the sound of the Eagles who were becoming very successful at the time, members of which had played in various groups with him. What really stands out in his records are the ethereal quality of his songs, his voice, the brilliance of the band that included many top musicians like guitarist James Burton and the duets he sang with Emmylou Harris. In fact, after his death Emmylou Harris became a major star in her own right and continued Gram’s ideas for many years.
These records don’t leap out at you like Astral Weeks and others on this list but they definitely grow on you. Standout tracks include $1000 Dollar Wedding and Love Hurts. Gram and Emmylou are outstanding together, something that Bob Dylan picked up on when he hired Emmylou to sing on the Desire album. He also makes you aware of some really great country singers and songwriters that were not well-known at the time like The Louvin Brothers.
Definitely worth listening to, but give it time!
- My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One ( https://kennywilson.org/2013/06/05/favouritealbums/)
- Rolling Stone Magazine’s Best 500 Albums of All Time http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-20120531
- Rolling Stone magazine’s review of Hunky Dory 1972 ( http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/hunky-dory-19720106)
- Recent release of CD of Gram Parsons with Ric Grech ( http://www.musiconlinea.com/album/id:552742932/Folsom_Prison_Blues__feat__Rick_Grech_)
- Interview with Hank Wangford about Gram Parsons and Ric Grech( http://www.gramparsonsproject.com/hank/)
- Van Morrison’s moments of disbelief: Colin Marshall talks to critic Greil Marcus (3quarksdaily.com)
This is an interesting addition to the Bootleg Series from the much maligned Self Portrait period. I always thought there was more to it than many critics allowed.Time for a reappraisal!
- Bob Dylan Unreleased Songs With George Harrison To Surface Bootleg 10 (noise11.com)
- ArtsBeat: Latest in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, ‘Another Self Portrait,’ Coming in August (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) (musicofourheart.me)
- Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait Vs. The Basement Box (popdose.com)
- Latest Bob Dylan ‘Bootleg’: ‘Self Portrait’ (wyff4.com)
- 5 Essential 1970 Bob Dylan Songs (esquire.com)
This is a tricky one. I’ve never been that impressed with ‘best of’ lists but I found myself sitting in a hotel room listening to music on my phone and I began thinking about what my favourite (and most influential) albums of all-time were. I say influential because as many of you know I am a musician and song-writer who has followed in the footsteps of many greats. It’s a hard choice but here’s my favourite 20. I’ve limited myself to two albums by the same artist or else they would probably be all by Bob Dylan ! I also realise, having completed the list, that, with the exception of the first 5, the rest are in no particular order. I’m also aware that there are countless others that could, and probably should, be included. Okay, it’s a stupid idea but here it is!
1. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan.
Okay, what can I say about this album apart from the fact that it is probably the most inspired piece of work I have EVER heard (notice the Dylanesque emphasis) and I’m not just talking about music! I have read reports about the session and all participants agree that something very special happened here. It contains, in my opinion, the greatest rock song of all time “Like a Rolling Stone” but this is not really the essence of the album. It stands apart and, indeed, was produced by a different person from the rest of the record. The remainder contains Dylan at his most aggressive and elusive best. The most interesting song, again in my opinion, is Desolation Row, a surreal trawl through 20th Century culture and ideas. “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers”. This isn’t just poetry and music it is an assault on the senses and intellect! “The Agents” and “The Superhuman Crew” check to see that no one is escaping to Desolation Row. The famous voice that people either love or hate is at it’s expressive best. Like many albums on my list this one is unique. There was nothing like it before and there’s been nothing like it since. Even the titles of the songs were a new departure with weird names like “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seemed to have nothing to do with the lyrics of the songs but probably did have. Pop music had found Symbolist poetry and the kids loved it!! (Well, this one did). It stands alone and sounds forever modern and archaic at the same time. Dylan himself has said that he had no idea how he wrote the songs and wouldn’t be able to do them now. The musicianship is impeccable especially the electric guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield and the acoustic lead of Charlie McCoy imported especially from Nashville for just one track!
2. The Songs of Leonard Cohen
If Bob Dylan in the mid sixties was on an amphetamine fueled creative voyage into oblivion Leonard Cohen was on a quietly mannered journey back from it. This album emerged in 1968 and gradually became a bedsit legend as many sad young men and women took the songs to heart. Okay, it has been called music to slit your wrists to and Cohen’s voice has probably been even less complimented than Dylan’s but to those in the know this is an album of beautifully crafted songs whose underlying message is surprisingly optimistic completely unlike the eternal whinging of say Morrissey and the Smiths who actually DID create music to slit your wrists to. Cohen’s songs deal with ideas that had seldom been dealt with by popular music before. Despair, spirituality, sexual love and he wrote like a real poet which of course is what he was. He was also a well known novelist before he became a singer and a songwriter. A very different pedigree to most of the pop singers and rock and rollers at the time. He was a remarkable performer though and managed to follow Jimi Hendrix at 4 in the morning at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and still get a standing ovation. Producer Bob Johnson was so impressed with him that he gave up producing and joined his band as a keyboardist. This was his first album and contains classics like “Suzanne” and “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. My favourite is “The Stranger Song” that manages to evoke feelings of loss, alienation and redemption. ” And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter. Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he’ll never need to deal another.He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”. It also has his trade mark guitar ripple which is quite difficult to do. The perfect song for existentialists.
If Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of despair and alienation the Velvet Underground were like a sound track to the heroin drenched ravings of William Burroughs in “The Naked Lunch”. Here we have tracks like “Heroin”, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Waiting for the Man” complete with drones and excruciating feed back. This is like the antithesis of pop music, both disturbed and deranged. Not surprisingly it was neither played on the radio nor bought in any quantity by the general public at the time. It has since of course been cited as one of the greatest records of all time and was a massive influence on punk rock. Famously produced by Andy Warhol (or should that be non-produced as he knew nothing about music or record production!) it also contained some sweet ballads dealing with wholesome events like “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Femme Fatale” and “Venus in Furs” that reference both mental insecurity and sado-masochistic sex. Not your typical pop song.! This is a truly adorable record that managed to both scare and make me smile. Lou Reed thinks that if it had NOT been produced by Warhol it might have sold a lot more as he was so universally detested at the time (Warhol that is. Lou Reed has only become detested more recently!) and his name on the record put people off. On the other hand it would never have been released as it is without his influence. Some PROPER record producer would have cleaned it up and totally ruined it.
4. Strange Days by The Doors
You may wonder why this record by the Doors is so high up the chart and not their dazzling first LP. Well, the answer is simple. Apart from a couple of singles like “Light My Fire” I missed the first one and went straight into “Strange Days” which I think is absolutely brilliant. The sound of the Doors is wonderful and the quality of Jim Morrison’s voice is just perfect. He described it as “sick crooning” as he had based it on the sound of Frank Sinatra. Mind you, he doesn’t sound much like Frank when he bellows out “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection!!” He was a great lyricist who raided the poems of William Blake and created something new. The final song “When the Music’s Over” is monumental and gives the impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Morrison introduced performance poetry to pop music and created the way for great artists like Patti Smith. I just love the line “Before I sink into the big sleep, I want to hear the scream of the butterfly”. It has been said by some critics that this album is not as good as the first and they used up all their best songs on that one. I disagree, I think this is just as good and,in my mind, perhaps even better. Mind you, I also love “Waiting for the Sun” and even the song “Hello, I Love You” which attracted some derision at the time because it was seen as cynically commercial (and plagiarised The Kinks)! I guess the Doors can do no wrong for me!
5. Revolver by The Beatles
In a similar way that I missed the first Doors album I also missed “Rubber Soul” by the Beatles. If I hadn’t have done it would probably have been my favourite Beatles record. As it is, I didn’t listen to it in it’s entirety until years later! However, “Revolver” still stands up as the most ambitious Beatles record until that date. “Sgt. Pepper” is probably more ambitious but it is not as interesting, in my opinion, with the exception perhaps of “Day in the Life”. “Revolver” totally knocked my socks off. From the opening count-in of “Taxman” to the wailing drones of “Tomorrow Never Knows” I was captivated. This was music I had never heard before and I loved it! It also had the first real use of Indian music. Sure, George had used the sitar on “Rubber Soul” but here we have a full Indian ensemble including tabla with George crooning mystically over the top of it. Totally brilliant!! There is also the first use of experimentation with the recording of reverse guitar tracks and tape loops. The Beatles are growing up and trying new things! This record probably has the Beatles playing together at their best. George’s lead guitar playing has improved and changed considerably. Ringo’s drumming has never been better. John and Paul’s voices are perfectly matched. It is interesting that in the same year that they gave up playing live they produced their tightest recordings ever. Songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “She Said, She Said” are miniature gems of great writing and playing. Oh, and the sleeve’s pretty cool as well!
Gigs I’m doing in Florence, Italy at the end of May.
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!