Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle | Will Self 

Guy Debord

“What other text from the 60s so accurately describes the shit we’re in?’ – Will Self on Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Photograph: Situationist International

Will Self takes a walk through the banlieues of Paris and is astonished by the prescience of Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which so accurately describes ‘the shit we’re in’

A small green tent was pitched on the small daisy-spotted patch of greenish grass. It looked tidily enough done; suitable perhaps for a summer rock festival. But this was just outside the Saint-Gratien RER station, north of the rundown riverine port of Gennevilliers, on the outer whorl of the Parisian fingerprint; and the tent – which had the limp-wristed bough of an evergreen touching its flysheet in benediction – was quite clearly being lived in.

The mental picture the non-Parisian has of the city’s banlieues is framed by the fictive: gangster movies such as La Haine, or TV cop shows such as Spiral that do battle with similar Danish, Swedish, British and, of course, American vehicles, in a race to see which can sandblast its respective society with the greatest quantity of grit. But within this framing, content and dimensionality are provided by recent history, and in particular by the widespread rioting of 2005 that thrust these under-imagined locales on to TV screens worldwide. Not since the événements of 1968 had Parisian street fighting commanded such attention, but whereas the soixante-huitardscould be characterised as the vanguard of a stillborn revolution, the young second-, third- and probably fourth-generation immigrants who chucked molotov cocktails at the flics and the CRS during the émeutes neither donned, nor were measured up for, any such ideological camouflage.

Instead, the violent eruption of the Parisian banlieues was anatomised by reference to a body politic sickening with pathological metaphors. Implicitly, explicitly … ineluctably, the rioters were the Muslim Other, which, having been almost accidentally ingurgitated as part of the colonialist couscous, was now playing havoc with Gallic digestion. The French state had found itself – willingly or not – as a fellow-traveller on the neocons’ coach trip to the rapturous intersection of medieval chiliasm and Fukuyama’s neoliberal end-point.

Walking from the RER station towards the Seine, I passed not through what the fictive might lead you to expect, but rather low and hummocky hills, the swoop of a B-class road, outcroppings of commerce, small apartment blocks, car parks, duff public sculpture, off-cuts of quasi-open space – over it all an ambiguous miasma of street furniture and signage: this was France, certainly, but a France at once decoupled from any sense of pays, and divorced from the least suggestion of the urbane. In a comparable district of London – picture, if you are able to, Ruislip or Hounslow, Abbey Wood or Enfield – there would be myriad subliminally registered cues, all of which would combine to force on the spectator the unavoidability of her metropolitan condition. In London, the interwar spread of municipal socialism through the arteries of the tube system was accompanied by the soft-modernism of the suburban stations and Harry Beck’s matching diagram, which completes their connectivity. In London, the map really is the territory, because the territory really is the map. Not here.

The vexed relationship between the map and the territory suffuses The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which argues that not only authentic social relations, but even the bricks and mortar that frame them, and the tarmac that connects one to another, have all been replaced with their representation; a 1:1 scale model. Moreover, for Debord, as a sequel to the paralysis of “historical development”, the contrast between town and country has become submerged in a sclerotic suburbia. He is at pains to point out that this annulling is no cod-utopian “supersession” but rather an “erosion … visible in the eclectic mélange of … decayed elements”.

From the beige depths of a heavily shuttered house beside a hillock from which I could spy the Eiffel Tower, a deep, dark voice spoke: “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” I suppose, had I been the ghost of Jane Jacobs I would have experienced this as reassurance: the eyes, even if unseen themselves, remained on the street. But, instead, I muttered pacifications: “Nothing … just having a look … about”, then walked on down and around the hill through a scree of crushed fag packets, centrifugally impelled aluminium trim and the petrified tears shed by long dead cars. Dragon’s teeth were sewn across the scabrous roadway – I queased between them and found myself within 100 metres of the riverbank. The A15 soared overhead: two pilotisplanted this side of the river, the next pair on the far bank, its two carriageways separated by curved air. Up there was the city, conceived of however you so pleased. Down here, however, was this un-place, an inter-zone, under-imagined and thus free to be itself. Sprays of cherry blossom mimicked by tangles of wire and a shaggy pelt of weedy grass. Two small brown kids sat beside an oblong concrete depression filled with dank water, one had her hair tied in pigtails. They were playing with tin cans, cups and a bucket. Beyond them, right on the river’s edge was their Paris: a bidonville of shacks built from bits of scavenged packing cases, plastic tarpaulin, car tyres and all sorts of other stuff.

Many of its most sympathetic readers experience The Society of the Spectacleas a concerted howl of disgust. I cannot agree – for me it is the Spectacle that, far from being the creation of some malevolent or false god, emerges instead as the hero of the piece, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes. The Spectacle, Debord writes, “is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”. We are all jammed up against the plate glass of the Spectacle, our faces crushed as we “lèche-vitrine” in search of the same old commodified poison.

The entirely manmade nature of the world from which the individual subject experiences alienation is not, for Debord, a factual programme to be passively viewed on the TV screens of the global village, but a belief that is actively entered into. It is the genius of Debord to have characterised the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post-industrial manifestation. The Society of the Spectacle reads – if you will savour a cliche – as fresh as paint. Debord’s analysis of time itself as a series of epochs is dizzying: such “pseudo-festivals” as sporting events (the Olympics springs immediately to mind), act to convince the denizens of the Spectacle that they are still living in a cyclical and eternal go-round, while only the anointed few, the celebrities, are imbued with the attributes of money and power that signify the ability to make choices – to progress into a better future. “Being a star,” Debord writes, “means specialising in the seemingly lived.” Sound familiar, “Sir” Peter Bazalgette?

But it is most of all in its analysis of the ideology of the Spectacle that Debord’s text repays close reading. It is the Spectacle’s genius to have “turned need against life” and thus effected “the separation and estrangement between man and man”. Hence the Spectacle’s embrace of economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed “scientific” – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance made before the gods who will confer growth, and hence the fact that more or less any contemporary western politician – from Hollande, to Merkel, to Cameron, to Obama, and back again – who had eyes to see, could find their own Caliban image raging back at them from the pages of The Society of the Spectacle.

At Argenteuil centre-ville, I found echoic pedestrian underpasses, faux-19th century streetlamps of twirled iron and postmodern apartment blocks built of scaled-up children’s construction toys. I walked on across the oxbow of Gennevilliers, still feeling that I was nowhere at all in particular – standing beside a grocery store or an office block, then crossing between parked cars. The bridge across the re-encountered Seine that led to Clichy was lined with cheerful window boxes, planted with a gaily patriotic tricolour of blooms pinker, pinker and pinkest. Where there are window boxes there must, of course, be a window – this one framed the mirrored cuboids of La Défenseto the west, structures that might have been designed expressly to conform to the Debordian paradigm.

And then, some way past the Porte de Clichy, I was quite suddenly – if at an indefinable point – in Paris, a city to this day that defines itself by the micro-associations of its smaller parts: the awning of an alimentation, a drain cover, the angle of a pissing dog’s leg, the furl of paper around a stick of bread, the white apron around a smoking waiter – quite as much as the high extravaganza of its grand boulevards and gold-leafed public buildings. Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again not only by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in? – but also wondered how it was that his dérives across the Paris of the time could have so attuned him to the way in which the urban environment of the near future would become quite so decoupled from any element of the felt or experienced life. After all, Pariswas by no means the most Spectacular city of the late 1950s and early 60s; indeed, it’s still not on an equal footing to London. Unplanned London, which has just arrived at its square miles of parametrically designed junk space, its CCTV-overseen gated business cantonments and Chinese party cadre-owned luxury encampments, its logo skyscrapers and purpose-built “iconic” tourist destinations.

It occurs to me that Haussmann’s attempt to impose civic order and authority on the medieval jumble of mid-19th century Paris had not only paved the way for the Spectacle, but it had also afforded its – and his – enemies with the material to rip up for their barricades. There seems a nice congruence between the go-rounds of the Grands Boulevards and centrifugal/centripetal current of French theorising, whereby notions given form in the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure swirl out in widening circles from the metropolis, only to then gurgle back in again, before eventually disappearing up the arses of their originators.

Seen like this, The Society of the Spectacle is at once the bastard progeny of the French Enlightenment – out of Diderot, by means of the Napoleonic Code – and a salutary reminder of how the pursuit of some millenarian ideological purity only ever results – if successful – in the rumbling of tumbrels; or, if a failure, in its wholesale co-option by its stated enemies. That we no longer hear quite so much about “the spectacle” as shorthand for any of the following: the ludic element of consumer society, the post-ideological character of western “democracy”, the web-cum-matrix woven by the internet, the glocal character of late capitalism, may be because Debord’s concept has now been so thoroughly appropriated – one might fairly say détourned – that there’s nothing left of it but its coldly numerical bones.

Had Debord not shot himself in 1994 in his rural fastness of Bellevue-la-Montagne, he probably would have turned his gun on the likes of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren (and no doubt me as well); pop music impresarios whose much-trumpeted situationist influence – such as it was – consisted only in a series of pranks, that, while they may have given succour to the culturally anomic nonetheless only resulted in the profitable sale of records, posters and other memorabilia. I doubt, somehow, that either Wilson – chiefly known for managing Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and setting up Factory Records – or McLaren, rather more famous for his role as the Sex Pistols’ svengali, can have subjected The Society of the Spectacle to a sustained critical reading. Had they done so, they would’ve realised that their antics were anathema to Debord; that the playful elements of situationist practice – the bowdlerising of cartoons, the daubing on walls of whacky slogans, the exaltation of drunkenness – were only ever to be sanctioned if constitutive of a genuine insurrection, such as the few short weeks of 68, and as precursors of that revolution of everyday life (to adapt the title of the competing situationist theoretical work, written by Debord’s greatest rival, Raoul Vaneigem), which was to follow the final and complete dissolution of the Spectacle.

The relative success of the Situationist International during les évènementsalso sowed the seeds for the détournement of The Society of the Spectacleitself. I say relative success because it can be doubted – and will always be disputed – the extent to which Debord and his loose confraternity of freelance bully-boys and wannabe revolutionists actually succeeded in either manning the barricades themselves, or screwing the courage of the mob to CRS’s sticking post. But the important thing was that the situationists were perceived as having been in the thick of things – as instigators and ideological choreographers of the distinctively ludic elements of this particular civil disorder. The sneering, de haut en bas reception of The Society of the Spectacle on its publication the year before in French, was followed the year after by its rhapsodic one when it appeared in translation. By then, of course, the game was effectively up – something Debord, a man obsessed by war games and strategising, undoubtedly grasped. The Society of the Spectacle so far as being an animator of events, had in a matter of months become simply another text to be subjected to scores, hundreds, thousands of exhaustive academic analyses. The best that could be said for the thing – from its author’s point of view – was that the royalties paid his wine bills, and helped to supplement a lifetime of unabashed – and indeed, self-righteous – sponging.

Of course, The Society of the Spectacle still animates serious protest to this day – or, rather, since to admit to having been one of the Invisible Committee that authored the highly Debordian The Coming Insurrection (2007) is to court arrest on those grounds alone, the very style of the earlier work remains inflammatory. As to its content, The Coming Insurrection has nothing much to add – how can it, when, as I say, never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold? Open his book, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.

We Shall Fight, We Will Win: On The Black Dwarf and 1968 (Verso)

We Shall Fight, We Will Win: On The Black Dwarf and 1968

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The Black Dwarf  was announced with a free broadsheet on 1 May 1968 and published four weeks later. The inspiration was the struggle of the Vietnamese liberation movement against American imperialism that had taken over territories from the European colonial powers. The Tet offensive by the Vietnamese NLF (National Liberation Front) that year had witnessed an assault on most of the provincial capitals in occupied South Vietnam which culminated with a surprise assault on the US Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city), where the stars and stripes were lowered and the NLF flag hoisted. This symbolism, as well as real gains on the ground, marked the beginning of the end of the US war. The game was up. The tortures, use of chemical weapons, destruction of the ecology by defoliants carried on for another seven years. Imperial narcissism knows no boundaries. It was the Tet offensive that boosted the anti-war movements in the United States and across the world.

First issue of <i>The Black Dwarf</i> released as a free-sheet on May Day 1968

In Britain the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign grew rapidly. In October 1967, 10,000 marchers came close to entering the US embassy. In March 1968 contingents from the German SDS and the French JCR joined us as 30,000 people mobilised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign surrounded the US Embassy in London.  We had been baton-charged by mounted police (‘The Cossacks, the Cossacks’ was our cry as we edged forward thinking of Vietnam and Petrograd 1917). Mick Jagger, marching with us, angered by police brutalities, thought we should have answered force with force. Britain was hopeless. A few months later he wrote Streetfighting Man. Culture was intervening in politics.

‘Hey! think the time is right for a palace revolution, but where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Hey, said my name is called Disturbance; I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants’

The BBC refused to play it. He scribbled a note ‘For you!’ and sent it to me with the song. We published the lyrics in The Black Dwarf, aligned with a text by Engels on street fighting. A debate on the new music and the new mood erupted briefly in the New Left Review with Richard Merton (Perry Anderson’s nom-de-plume) arguing that:

“… it is incorrect to say that the Stones are ‘not major innovators’. Perhaps a polarization Stones-Beatles such as Adorno constructed between Schoenberg and Stravinsky (evoked by Beckett) might actually be a fruitful exercise. Suffice it to say here that, for all their intelligence and refinement, the Beatles have never strayed much beyond the strict limits of romantic convention: central moments of their oeuvre are nostalgia and whimsy, both eminently consecrated traditions of middle-class England…By contrast, the Stones have refused the given orthodoxy of pop music; their work is a dark and veridical negation of it. It is an astonishing fact that there is virtually not one Jagger-Richards composition which is conventionally about a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ personal relationship. Love, jealousy and lament—the substance of 85 per cent of traditional pop music—are missing. Sexual exploitation, mental disintegration and physical immersion are their substitutes.”

In Britain music, in France cinema, were the auguries of what was about to come.

VSC broke with the more traditional opposition to the war. It declared its solidarity with NLF and supported its victory. Whereas the old New Left had launched CND and developed a ‘third camp’ position, the VSC responded to the conjuncture. The NLF was created, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party. It was armed by the Soviet Union and China. At one point, Bertrand Russell, distinguished VSC sponsor, wrote an open letter to Leonid Brezhnev, then leader of the Soviet Union, demanding that the Soviet Air Force be dispatched to defend the Vietnamese.

This was the political context in which The Black Dwarf was launched. It was conceived as a political-cultural weekly. The idea came from Clive Goodwin, a radical literary agent who became the publisher. The first meeting to discuss the paper took place at his house on 79 Cromwell Road. The room was lit by Pauline Boty’s paintings. She had been married to Clive and died of leukaemia in 1963. Present were Clive, the poets Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell, the playwright David Mercer, Margaret Mattheson, BBC script editor Roger Smith, D.A.N. Jones (who we wanted to be editor) and myself. Behind the scenes were Kenneth Tynan (who offered to review the House of Commons, but didn’t), Ken Trodd and Tony Garnett. We all agreed it was a great idea. Christopher Logue was sent off to look at old radical journals in the British Museum. The following week he returned with the name: The Black Dwarf. It was a polemical paper edited by Thomas Wooler in 1817 and agitating viciously and satirically for electoral and parliamentary reform. The title was inspired by the stunted bodies and soot-stained faces of coal miners.

Communication was slow in those days and it wasn’t till late afternoon on 9 May 1968 that we got news that something serious might erupt in Paris. The Sorbonne had been occupied! Five thousand people were packing the amphitheatre. Action Committees of various sorts were sprouting like magic mushrooms. The isolation of the Nanterre March 22 Committee had been broken. Of its two principal inspirers, Daniel Bensaid died some years ago, steadfast as ever, while the other Daniel (I think his last name was Cohn-Bendit) died politically. His corpse, I’m reliably informed, is currently on guard duty at the Elysee cemetery. He now regards Macron as the true representative of ’68. We published Sartre’s remarks to the Sorbonne students in the amphitheatre:

“Something has emerged from you which surprised, which astonishes and which denies everything which has made our society what it is today. That is what I would call the extension of the field of possibility. Do not give up.”

The night of the barricades on 10 May set France on fire. Soon the whole country was involved and 10 million workers went on strike, occupying factories in Rouen, Nantes, Paris, Lyon, etc. It seemed as if the Paris Commune had been reborn. As the first issue was brought to us, I thought the cover chosen by D.A.N. Jones was too weak and watery. We needed to identify with the movement. On a scrappy piece of paper, I wrote: ‘We Shall Fight, We Will Win, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin’ and handed it to our designer, Robin Fior. Everyone except Jones agreed. We decided to pulp 20,000 copies of the first issue. Jones walked out and I was appointed editor.

In our May Day broadsheet in 1968 we had described the first Editor of the old paper thus:

“Tom Wooler was a clever and humorous man. He edited a great left-wing paper which closed down 140 years ago…He was a printer from Sheffield with an office in Fleet Street. When he was charged with writing seditious and libellous material (they said he had libelled King Richard II) he explained that he hadn’t written a word. He had simply set it up in print!”

He was acquitted but forced a change in the law. Henceforth printers became liable as well. Ironically our Black Dwarf was rejected by almost a hundred printers and we finally ended up taking the train to a printer in Bala, North Wales the only printshop prepared to do the job. It was the same with distributors. They rejected us en masse. Only the great Collets’ bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London and a few radical bookstores elsewhere in the country (all gone now) stocked the magazine. We were dependent on street sellers and Mick Shrapnell a VSC/hippy militant used to sell 500 copies on his own. The musical Hair , a huge West End hit, helped with the lead actress displaying the latest issue on stage in every performance. Our supporters in the painting fraternity: David Hockney, Ron Kitaj, Jim Dine, Felix Topolski didn’t have much dosh but donated paintings that we auctioned. Other donors would drop in with much needed cash. We managed to print 45 issues of the paper and were amongst the first to declare 1969 as the ‘Year of the Militant Woman?’ with Sheila Rowbotham’s stunning manifesto. I had told the designer David Wills that it should be designed like an old-fashioned manifesto. The unreconstructed pig tried to subvert the message by placing the manifesto on two gigantic breasts. Sheila rang in a state as she saw the proofs. I rushed over, had it changed and sacked Wills on the spot afterwards. These things happened.

Politics was getting polarised and a number of the staff and EB members split on my decision to publish three pages from dissident ANC guerrillas who had been tortured and denounced by their leaders simply for asking critical questions of overall strategy and tactics. I was convinced they were genuine. Supporters of the ANC leadership were horrified when the magazine appeared. Thabo Mbeki led a squad of supporters to buy up all our copies in Collets. We reprinted. But the vote had revealed a division between Trotskyists and the others and a split took place. Was it avoidable? Probably, but left politics was becoming more and more polarised after the French May and the Prague Spring. A group of us left and established The Red Mole, much more linked to the IMG [International Marxist Group]. Another problem was lack of funds. We were in trouble anyway but the split was regrettable. The non-Trotskyists set up Seven Days , a paper I liked very much which should have survived.

The Black Dwarf and Seven Days are now digitalised in full and made available by the Amiel-Melburn Trust archive, an extremely valuable resource.

Tariq Ali

17 May 2018

The Neglected History of the May ’68 Uprising in France

Source: The Neglected History of the May ’68 Uprising in France

On the morning of June 10, 1968—a couple of weeks after French labor unions signed an agreement with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou to put an end to a crippling general strike—workers at the Wonder battery factory in the northern Parisian suburb of St. Ouen voted to return to the job.

Later that afternoon, as union representatives conferred outside the factory gates with the rank and file, an amateur camera crew captured the scene. The group’s 10-minute film, Wonder, May ’68, focuses on a young woman who has drawn a crowd around her.

“No!” she barks at her union rep, fighting back tears and shaking her head as he tries to console her by listing management’s modest concessions. “I’m not going back inside. I’m not putting my feet back in that prison.”

The woman has the unmistakable glow of raised expectations, that special energy that comes from successful collective action. When you convince yourself you’re capable of changing the world by banding together with your co-workers, the feeling of power that results doesn’t fade easily. In France, during the months of May and June 1968, millions of other workers caught the bug: Between 7 and 9 million went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of them did so while occupying their factories, as at Wonder in St. Ouen.

The fact is all too often neglected, if not outright forgotten, today. The unprecedented wave of protests and strikes that swept across France for a few weeks in 1968—known today simply as “May ’68”—was, at its core, a workers’ movement. This was the largest wildcat general strike in the history of capitalism: a mass revolt against low pay, poor working conditions, and the hierarchical, dehumanizing organization of the capitalist workplace itself.

Events in the Left Bank of Paris simply provided the spark. Ironically, they’ve since become better known than the actual strike movement. On May 3, hundreds of college students gathered for a general assembly in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University. Administrators responded by calling the riot police—the infamous CRS—who subsequently marched onto campus and arrested hundreds of protesters, including student leaders. This, in turn, enraged the burgeoning student movement, culminating in nighttime skirmishes with the CRS known as the “Night of the Barricades.” On the morning of May 11, French people woke up to images of smoldering barricades in the heart of Paris, of overturned cobblestones, of riot cops beating students.

Then, the most important phase of the revolt kicked off.

On May 13, France’s two largest unions—the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT)—joined students in solidarity marches across the country, decrying police repression. While unions themselves didn’t call for further action, workers took initiative on their own, launching strikes and occupying factories across France. First, the Sud-Aviation factory outside of Nantes; eventually, plants belonging to Renault, Citroën, and the state-run energy company; soon, the postal service, the public rail company, and the entirety of the country ground to a halt.

The strike wave lasted for weeks. As it peaked by the end of May, union and government leaders gathered for negotiations. This proved a turning point. It is not unreasonable to posit that the revolt might have continued to grow under different circumstances. Had the CGT and the closely linked Communist Party thrown their full weight behind the workers’ movement, France might have drawn closer to full-scale political change. Instead, the country’s two largest left-wing organizations encouraged an end to the crisis. Enticed by a national agreement that ensured enhanced union rights, a 35 percent hike in the minimum wage, and a 7 percent pay raise for everyone else, millions of employees gradually began to return to their jobs. In a May 30 radio address, Charles de Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and the organization of new legislative elections. A few weeks later, the Gaullists emerged with an even larger majority.

May ’68 is simply too large of a historical fact to ignore in France today. As such, this year’s 50th anniversary saw a host of museum exhibitions, TV specials, radio programs, and new books to commemorate the uprising. Rather than focus on the strike movement, though, most highlighted the familiar pillars of what has since become the dominant narrative of 1968, in France and abroad. According to this version of events, May was, alternatively, the product of a cultural rebellion and intergenerational clash; the outburst of privileged students feeling trapped by a centralized education system; the result of Parisian kids reliving their favorite Victor Hugo novels by playing revolution; or, at its best, a protest against the social conservatism of postwar French society. All of these things may be true, but they miss the bigger picture.

Even Tony Judt, the masterful historian of Europe, fell victim to these tropes. His magnum opus Postwar devotes just a few pages to May ’68. It contains no mention of the millions of workers who went on strike. In their place, Judt makes note of the “tight red corduroy pants and fitted black shirts” apparently worn by some Parisian protesters.

Ironically, the chronological proximity of May ’68 may be partly to blame. Since the events are still part of the recent past, a relatively small bunch of well-connected politicians, artists, and writers who participated in the events have been able to disproportionately shape collective memory. Since these unofficial experts of ’68 tend to speak from both personal experience and positions of authority, they receive an unusually generous benefit of the doubt. Other critics have observed as much. Rather than history, the general public is treated to a series of their interpretations treated as fact.

Of course, many of these former radicals have, by now, spent the bulk of their careers as either centrists or right-wingers: people like Alain Finkielkraut, the ex-Maoist who became an anti-communist “New Philosopher” alongside Bernard-Henri Lévy (commonly called BHL) in the mid-to-late 1970s; Romain Goupil, a filmmaker and ex-Trotskyist who supported the American war and occupation in Iraq; or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the emblematic anarchist-leaning student leader who was later elected to the European Parliament and now backs Emmanuel Macron. Not only does their version of May ’68 nicely reflect today’s dominant ideologies—recasting May as a cultural rebellion avoids uncomfortable questions like the exploitation of labor and the distribution of wealth—but the life stories of BHL and company have the added benefit of fitting a media-friendly trope: the fiery young idealist who grows up and turns rightward.

While prominent ex-radicals have spilled much ink on ’68, they tend to avoid much talk of the workers’ rebellion. This makes sense from their perspective. For true believers in the liberal capitalist order, May ’68 is much easier to understand this way. After all, it is a profoundly unsettling thought that millions of people could be so unhappy with the supposedly democratic society in which they live—so enraged at what they put up with on a daily basis at work—that they’re willing to put their jobs on the line to change things. May ’68 retains its subversive aura because of what it suggests about the stability of our advanced Western societies: Possibilities for revolt are much greater than they appear on the surface.

As any trade unionist worth his or her salt knows, there is no such thing as a “spontaneous” job action. An unexpected development can sometimes trigger a movement, but workers act together only under certain conditions. They have to share grievances, for one. But just as importantly, they must trust one another and have confidence they can win the struggle they embark upon. France in the late 1960s encouraged this sort of thinking: Left-wing parties and labor unions were deeply present in the lives of the working class, supplying wage-earners with a culture of solidarity and a well-known history of resistance, from the Paris Commune to the Popular Front to the Maquis to mass strikes following the Liberation. At the same time, French employers were especially antagonistic, seeking to hit government-imposed production targets by maintaining tightly organized workplaces and downward pressure on wages.

Pay wasn’t so good. While the trend pales in comparison to the United States since the 1970s, Thomas Piketty’s research has shown that income inequality in France reached a postwar peak around the years 1967 and 1968, hitting its highest levels since the 1930s. Although unions and employers engaged in nationwide collective bargaining at the time, they often failed to lift up those at the bottom of the ladder.

In addition to subpar compensation, workers often had little say on the job, with few chances of career advancement and effectively zero input over the production process. Employers maintained strict classification schemes that left the lowest-paid categories of the work force, the ironically termed specialized workers, feeling disrespected and ready to lash out. Understandably, the strikes of May-June gave life to far-reaching critiques about the soul-crushing nature of work itself. And to more than a few moments of vengeance in the form of “boss-nappings.” At the occupied Sud Aviation factory, workers locked their boss in his office and forced him to listen to the “Internationale” on loop.

Immigrants and women advanced their own workplace grievances alongside those of their white male French counterparts. At Renault’s flagship auto plant in Boulogne-Billancourt, North African, Spanish, and Portuguese workers came up with their own list of demands, calling for an end to discrimination and for equal union rights. French law barred most foreigners from serving as union representatives until 1972—a change brought about thanks to worker activism in 1968 and subsequent years.

The strike movement in May swelled thanks to the mass, working-class base of the labor movement and the left. About a fifth of the French work force belonged to a union at the time. This was a sign of significant influence. Unlike in the United States, union membership in France doesn’t confer additional job benefits. To hold a union card in France is to be a workplace activist, to adhere to a certain set of values. In 1968, most unionized employees belonged to the Communist-tied CGT, whose program plainly endorsed the class struggle and the nationalization of key economic sectors. In certain workplaces—especially in the auto industry and in heavy industry—union density was higher than 20 percent, and non-members were often sympathizers. While labor leaders didn’t call for May’s strike wave and CGT officials sought to bring it to an end, it is inconceivable to imagine the movement’s taking root without a base of union activists.

By the same token, the dominant force on the left was the French Communist Party (PCF). Party leaders were famously critical of the student movement in 1968, and justifiably mocked for their outmoded political vision. Still, the PCF’s presence fueled a working-class political consciousness matched in Europe only by Italy, where the Communist Party carried similar weight. French Communists had received the second-highest vote total in the previous year’s legislative elections, just behind the Gaullists. While many critics emerged to the party’s left in the 1960s, nearly all remained attached to the Marxist tradition. Thousands of these Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists fanned the flames of rebellion in 1968.

Once the fire started, then, it was hard to put out.

In March 1968, Le Monde ran a now-legendary column titled “When France Is Bored.” The writer lamented the apparent calm reigning over France, just as the United States rioted, Vietnam burned, and China was swept by the Cultural Revolution. It’s a reminder of how the vast majority of the French intellectual establishment didn’t see May ’68 coming. Of course, an Algerian autoworker or a public-sector union activist would have written a very different piece.

Fifty years later, in a world that has increasingly little to do with de Gaulle’s France, this seems the most striking lesson of May ’68: Working-class discontent often runs far deeper than elites perceive—or, frankly, care to understand. When teachers went on strike this spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky, subsequent headlines often betrayed the ignorance of the political and media establishment. Journalists called the protests “spontaneous.” Republican legislators who had spent years slashing state education budgets were similarly caught by surprise. To the West Virginia teachers working side gigs to make ends meet and regularly lamenting the state of public education at union meetings, the movement was anything but spur-of-the-moment.

In the aftermath of ’68, left-wing activists endlessly debated the revolutionary character of the movement: Were striking autoworkers who raised the red flag over their plant truly intent on overthrowing capitalism? When workers booed union leaders encouraging them to go back to work, were they ready for political change? These debates won’t be settled soon. What’s clear, in any case, is that the discontent ran deep. And for a few weeks, millions of people let it be known, almost bringing down the government in the process.

Nearly 30 years after May 1968, director Hervé Le Roux set out to discover the identity of the young woman at the center of the Wonder factory film, capturing the quest in a documentary of his own, Reprise. Le Roux does manage to track down some of her colleagues, but the end of the film is disheartening. Not only does nobody seem to know what came of her, nobody even knows her name.

From Folk to Acid Rock, How Marty Balin Launched the San Francisco Music Scene | Collectors Weekly

This article was written by Ben Marks and first published in Collectors Weekly

Bill Graham, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia—half a century on, these names still evoke the sound of San Francisco in the late 1960s. To be sure, the city’s greatest concert promoter, singer, and guitarist all deserve their status as cultural icons, but it was another guy whose name you might notimmediately recognize, Marty Balin, who drew the world’s attention to San Francisco in the first place. That’s because in 1965, Balin undertook two inextricably linked projects that together changed rock-music history—he helped open a small but highly influential club called the Matrix, and he founded a new band, Jefferson Airplane, which played its first gig on his club’s opening night.

“You could predict how a show would go according to the drugs lined up on the back of the amps.”

Those two acts would have been enough to secure Balin’s place in music history, but the singer was just getting started. That fall, Balin encouraged an ambitious impresario named Bill Graham to host a benefit concert for a theater group Graham was managing, offering up Jefferson Airplane for the occasion. A second benefit at the Fillmore Auditorium, also featuring the Airplane, followed that December. By February of 1966, Jefferson Airplane was headlining the first non-benefit concert at the Fillmore for Graham—during that year, Balin’s band would play more than 30 dates at the hall.

Top: Marty Balin at Monterey Pop, 1967. Photo by Suki Hill. Above. Jefferson Airplane enjoyed a close relationship with promoter Bill Graham, who booked the band, which he managed during most of 1967, into the Fillmore in San Francisco and beyond.

The following year, 1967, the Airplane performed more than 100 times, including an electrifying appearance at Monterey Pop. In the winter of 1968, Balin and company briefly partnered with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to produce their own shows at the Carousel Ballroom. And then, in 1969, after performing at Woodstock that summer, the Airplane ended the decade as one of the openers for a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel when Balin came to the aid of a fan who was being beaten with pool cues by multiple members of the notorious motorcycle gang.

For Balin and the Airplane, the trajectory to that fateful day had been fast and steep. But like most musicians, Balin’s “overnight” success was years in the making. His first record deal, inked in 1962 when he was just 20, was with Challenge Records of Los Angeles, whose claim to fame had been a catchy single by The Champs called “Tequila.” For Challenge, Balin recorded four songs (only one of which he co-wrote), which were pressed onto a pair of 45s.

Balin recorded his first record in 1962 at age 20. This copy is inscribed to his mother and father.

Like a lot of Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka wannabes cutting records in those days, Balin was given a stage name—he was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald. In the studio, Balin sang with the L.A. music industry’s go-to backup band, the Wrecking Crew. “The lead guitar player at the session was Glen Campbell,” Balin remembers. “He was the hot guy in town at the time.” Also at the session—which his father, Joe Buchwald, paid for—was guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender, Jack Nitzsche on piano, and Hal Blaine on drums, with the Blossoms providing the backing vocals and Ricky Nelson’s arranger, Jimmie Haskell, conducting the strings. “They put me in a little room with a window and said ‘sing.’” Balin recalls.

Balin sang, although his debut went unnoticed by radio stations and, hence, the public. Still, Balin had his first taste of the music business, and he wanted more. He got it in the summer of 1963, while hanging out one evening in a San Francisco folk-music spot on Union Street called the Drinking Gourd. There, Balin met three other musicians who were looking to form a group. From that chance encounter, the Town Criers were formed. Before long, they were playing the Drinking Gourd and clubs like the hungry i and the Purple Onion, on one occasion opening for the great comedian Dick Gregory—within few years, Gregory would be sharing bills with the Airplane.

Between is solo career and Jefferson Airplane, Balin (top right) sang with a folk outfit called the Town Criers.

The year 1964 was a transitional one for American pop music. By then, the folk revival of the 1950s and early ’60s was feeling the competition from the British Invasion. The Beatles had arrived in February with Little Richard and Chuck Berry numbers in their repertoire. The Rolling Stones followed in June, introducing white American kids to black American blues. And in November, the Animals had an unlikely hit with a traditional American folk song called “The House of the Rising Son.”

By 1965, folk-rock hybrids were popping up all over the place. That spring, The Byrds had a hit with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was recorded in an L.A. studio with many of the same musicians who had backed Balin for Challenge Records. During the summer, Bob Dylan famously “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, a new San Francisco group called the Charlatansperformed for six weeks straight—but not “straight”—at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and the Lovin’ Spoonful burst on the scene with the release of its first single, “Do You Believe in Magic?”

What San Francisco lacked in 1965 was a reliable performance space for this new genre, which is partly what had sent the Charlatans to Virginia City. “When I was in the Town Criers,” Balin says, “I wanted to use electric guitars and drums, but places like the Drinking Gourd didn’t want that because it was too loud.” Still, Balin performed frequently at the Drinking Gourd, often on “hootenanny” night, accompanying his beseeching tenor with a nylon-string Martin guitar.

This 18-foot wide painting hung in the Matrix when Balin opened the club in 1965. The "JA" in the right panel is a nod to the club's house band, Jefferson Airplane. Years later, Balin found the painting in a gallery in Los Angeles. He purchased it and donated it to the Rock &amp; Roll Hall of Fame, where the center three panels are currently on view. Courtesy of the Rock &amp; Roll Hall of Fame.

It was a meager act, but Balin played those hootenanny nights for all he was worth, and that passion was enough to earn him a small following. “These nurses would come in and see me,” Balin remembers. “I guess they kind of liked what I did. One night, they brought their boyfriends, and after my set, I joined them at their table. The boyfriends, who were engineers, were talking about how they each had $3,000 to invest and didn’t know what to do with the money. I immediately jumped in and said, ‘Hey, give it to me.’ They said, ‘What would you do with it?’ And I said, “I’d open a nightclub and put a band in it. You can have the nightclub, I’ll keep the band.’”

That may have seemed like a bold proposal coming from a nobody who was still covering Rod McKuen tunes, but Balin was one of those people who had a natural knack for making things happen. “I’m an Energizer Bunny,” he says, “a stimulator. I have ideas and then I get other people to show off their talents and abilities, too.”

The 1965 lineup for the incarnation of Jefferson Airplane that recorded the band's first album was (from left to right) Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Signe Anderson, Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin, and Skip Spence.

Indeed, on that night at the Drinking Gourd, Balin already had some of the pieces for his still-unnamed band in place. In March of 1965, Balin had found his first recruit, Paul Kantner, at one of the Drinking Gourd’s open-mic nights, as Balin told Got a Revolution author Jeff Tamarkin for a 1993 interview published in “Relix Magazine.” “I remember I was standing at the door and he came in and the guy said, ‘No more room, we’re filled up.’ I said, ‘Give him my spot,’ because he looked interesting; he had two guitars, one in each hand, which was rare. Kind of a weird-looking dude. So he came in and he had a 12-string and a six and he came out onstage and tuned up, like he still does, and started to play this song and then stopped. He was embarrassed or something. And he walked off.”

According to Kantner in Got a Revolution, embarrassment had nothing to do with it. “It was a noisy, drinking kind of crowd. So I said, ‘This sucks. I’ve had enough, good-bye.’” For some reason, Balin was smitten. “As I was leaving Marty said, “Hey, you want to start a band?’” Kantner did.

The Matrix was a hit from the day it opened on August 13, 1965.

The Drinking Gourd was also where Balin and Kantner met Bob Harvey, the Airplane’s first bassist, who briefly played an upright before Jack Casady gave the band its signature, and very electric, bottom end. Signe Anderson, the band’s first female vocalist, was also a Drinking Gourd regular, and she sang with the Airplane for more than a year before leaving the group to raise her child, her memory as an original member of Jefferson Airplane all but obliterated by the arrival of Grace Slick, who had been fronting a competing group called the Great Society. The band’s first drummer, Jerry Peloquin, was an acquaintance of Balin’s, although he was quickly replaced by Skip Spence, who was fired less than a year later for disappearing one day to Mexico—Skippy, as friends called him, eventually resurfaced to help form Moby Grape. The last puzzle piece, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, arrived via Kantner, although it was Balin who chased him down. In addition to a blues-infused guitar, Kaukonen also contributed the band’s absurdist name, a shortened version of a nickname Kaukonen had been given by a friend (as a proper name, the words “Jefferson Airplane” are never preceded by “the”).

By 1966, the Matrix was still booking blues musicians like Lightin' Hopkins and the club's house band, Jefferson Airplane.

While all this was going on, the nurses’ three boyfriends—Elliot Sazer, Ted Saunders, and Paul Sedlewicz—were scouting locations, finally settling on a 40-by-80-foot pizza joint called the Syndicate, which was located on Fillmore Street a handful of blocks away from the Drinking Gourd. Renamed the Matrix by Sazer, the club was literally designed for the group Balin was assembling. “I built the stage to fit the band,” Balin says. “It was a little bigger than most stages.” It would have to be to support two guitarists, a pair of singers, and a rhythm section—six pieces in an era when four Beatles or five Stones were the rule.

And then, finally, it was opening night: Friday August 13, 1965. “The Matrix was a going thing from the day it opened,” Balin says. “That first night, representatives from every record company in the world were sitting in the audience. They all gave me their business cards, and I pinned them up in the dressing room. Everybody was going, ‘Oh man, let’s sign, let’s get a record deal!’ We knew about six songs,”—Balin described them to San Francisco Chroniclewriter John L. Wasserman as “social blues”—“and we extended those songs as instrumentals. So even though we didn’t have that many tunes, everybody wanted us.”

In late 1965 (left) and early 1966 (right), the Airplane often shared the bill with the Charlatans, who were on the scene a bit earlier than Jefferson Airplane but were soon eclipsed by the Airplane's fan base and acclaim.

Balin tried to put the brakes on his bandmates’ enthusiasm. “I said, ‘No, no, guys, we’re not going to sign anything until we hear from Phil Spector. And then the second night we played, Phil’s sister, Shirley, was in the audience, and she came up and said, ‘Phil Spector wants you to come to L.A.’ Things happened very fast.”

Although not with Phil Spector. “We didn’t get along with him at all,” Balin says. “He was too crazy for us.” No matter—by November, the band would sign with RCA Records, securing a then-staggering $25,000 advance in the deal.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, the band’s personnel solidified and its sound tightened as its members got in lots of practice at the Matrix, often backing whoever Balin had booked. “Mainly I hired the old blues guys I had played with,” Balin says, “like Lightnin’ Hopkins, J.C Burris, cats like that who would play for 300 or 400 bucks a night. Whoever was in the Airplane at the time would back them. We knew how to play the blues,” he adds, “but some of these guys would play like 15- and 15-and-a-half-bar blues, instead of the standard 12 or 16, and you’d be, like, ‘What the hell, man?’ It was a great education.”

In February of 1966, Jefferson Airplane headlined the first two non-benefit shows at the Fillmore Auditorium for two different promoters—Bill Graham (left) and Chet Helms of the Family Dog (right).

In September and October of 1965, Jefferson Airplane backed both Hopkins and Burris at the Matrix, as well as performing there under its own name. That October, the band also played the first of three Family Dog produced concerts at Longshoremen’s Hall—almost immediately, the San Francisco music scene had outgrown the cozy confines of the Matrix. The Bill Graham benefits followed in November and December, which is also when Jefferson Airplane went to L.A. to record its first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” for RCA.

Bill Graham (walking toward camera at center) ran the Fillmore Auditorium from 1966 though the summer of 1968, when he moved operations across town to the Carousel Ballroom, which he renamed the Fillmore West. He was always a hands-on promoter.

By January of 1966, the Airplane, Charlatans, and Family Dog had teamed up for a packed show at California Hall, and while Balin was ready to do more, George Hunter of the Charlatans wasn’t. “The Charlatans were very popular,” Balin remembers. “They were one of my favorite bands, and George and I were good friends.” But Balin didn’t have time to be disappointed. On February 4, Jefferson Airplane was headlining the official opening of the Fillmore Auditorium. Now it was the Fillmore’s turn to be packed. The Airplane was also the top-billed act when Chet Helms and the Family Dog produced their first Fillmore show on February 19. Within six months, Jefferson Airplane had gone from being the house band in a former pizza joint to being the supergroup of San Francisco.

By April, Helms had moved the Family Dog from the Fillmore to the Avalon Ballroom—sharing the Fillmore with a competitor had proved too much for Graham. Although the Airplane had opened the Fillmore for both promoters, the band would only play one subsequent weekend at the Avalon, in no small part because Balin was so comfortable with the way Bill Graham ran the Fillmore.

“Bill was the best promoter ever,” Balin says. “He just took care of every little detail. When you walked out onto his stage, it was ready for you. Everybody was calm, everybody was quiet. There was no rushing around. And Bill would be there, and he’d say, ‘The stage is yours.’ And you’d go out and there and everything would be perfect. It was just the best stage you could ever play.”

Graham helped cement the ritual of New Year's Eve concerts, often tapping Jefferson Airplane to be his headliner.

During most of 1967, Graham and the Airplane had more than a promoter-performer relationship because Graham was now managing the band. Given this close association, it’s perhaps not too surprising that in May of 1967, when Graham’s regular poster printer went out of business, Graham gave the work to Neal, Stratford & Kerr, where Balin’s dad, Joe Buchwald, worked as a pressman. Ironically, this was just a few months before Neal, Stratford & Kerr went bankrupt. Fortunately, its lead pressman, Levon Mosgofian, acquired the company’s presses and other printing hardware to form what would become Tea Lautrec Litho, and just as fortuitously, Buchwald stayed on with Mosgofian.

That almost sounds like Graham decided to hire Balin’s father’s firm for sentimental reasons, but Balin cautions against this kind of thinking. “Bill never did anything out of romance, unless it was for a woman,” he says. “He had a big sign behind his desk that read, ‘Though I walk in the Valley of Death, I am the meanest son of a bitch in that valley.’” So why did Graham go with Tea Lautrec if not because of his father? “Graham probably got a good deal,” Balin says.

From a proof sheet of photos of Marty Balin with his dad, Joe Buchwald. Courtesy Marty and Susan Balin.

In fact, Buchwald had been a part of his son’s professional life since he coughed up the dough for that first Challenge Records session in 1962. Buchwald also helped make the Matrix a reality, putting Balin in the unique position—for those times, anyway—of constantly bumping into one of his parents. “He was in the scene real tight,” Balin says of his dad. “I’d go to these dark, acid parties, and there would be my pops. I remember one time I was really stoned on LSD and found myself at this new thing called a light show. All these blobs of color and music were forming out of the darkness; man, was that crazy. I was coming on to the acid pretty strong when I noticed my dad sitting about two rows in front of me. I said, ‘Hey, Pop, get me out of here. I’m so stoned I can’t even walk!’ And he just said, ‘Relax! Let’s see the rest of the show, then I’ll take you home.’”

Naturally, Buchwald’s participation in the scene expanded when he and Levon Mosgofian began printing Fillmore posters for Bill Graham. As a pressman for San Francisco’s premier printer of psychedelic concert posters, Buchwald worked closely with the best rock-poster artists of the 20th century. These artists held Buchwald’s ability to coax their visions out of Tea Lautrec’s Miehle 29 offset printing presses in high esteem. Consequently, Buchwald was invited to countless concerts, parties, you name it. To hear Balin tell it, his pops rarely declined, which sometimes proved awkward—not for him, but for his pops.

The Airplane's second album, released in 1967, rose to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Signe Anderson was replaced by Grace Slick (top center), who would provide the album's biggest hit, "White Rabbit." Skip Spence was replaced by Spencer Dryden (bottom right). Herb Greene shot the photo for the album's cover, while Balin is credited with its design.

“He was always backstage when the Airplane played the Fillmore and Winterland,” Balin remembers. “I’d also run into him on the road, be it somewhere in the Midwest or Europe, even. I’d look over to the side of the stage, and there’d be my father with some chickie of his. I’d say, ‘Hey, Pop, how are you doing?’ After the show, though, he’d be gone. He wouldn’t even stick around to say ‘hi.’ He was embarrassed, I guess, because although he was still married to my mom, he had all these girlfriends. But I didn’t get uptight. I told him, ‘I’m not going to judge you. I understand Mom doesn’t want to go out and doesn’t stay up late. You’re a late-night go-getter. I dig it.’ After that, we became closer and friendlier.”

Graham managed Jefferson Airplane until early 1968, when Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden, who were a couple at this point, delivered an ‘either he goes or we go’ ultimatum. Among other reasons for the rupture, Slick and Dryden were tired of Graham’s argumentative style, and Slick in particular felt like Graham was working the band too hard.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead smoking a joint with Marty Balin during a free summer concert at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park, 1967. Courtesy of the Estate of Clay Geerdes.

Balin was more sanguine. He understood where Graham was coming from, and he liked the fringe benefits the band enjoyed thanks to its privileged relationship with the volatile promoter, even after Graham was no longer their manager. These benefits extended beyond regular bookings at Graham’s venues, including the fabled Fillmore East in New York City.

“After we’d played our gig,” Balin says, “we’d go back to his apartment in New York. Bill used to have his security guards take pot away from the audience because it was against the law at the time. So, he had this huge stash of confiscated weed in his apartment, which we’d all smoke after the show. It was great.”

Which is not to say that Balin was unfailingly loyal to Graham. Around the same time Jefferson Airplane decided to drop Bill Graham as their manager, replacing him with an old friend of Balin’s named Bill Thompson, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead agreed to be partners in a venerable San Francisco dance hall called the Carousel Ballroom. There, they would produce their own shows without the help of Bill Graham, Chet Helms, or anyone else.

During the first half of 1968, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead tried to run the Carousel Ballroom themselves, often sharing billing (as seen in this Alton Kelley poster) to keep the enterprise afloat. When Bill Graham took it over in the summer of 1968, he kept the Carousel sign and put one bearing the words "Fillmore West" above it.

“That was great,” Balin says. “We finally had our own ballroom!” Unfortunately, the rent was too high and tons of people got in free. To make ends meet, the bands behind the Carousel were obliged to play it regularly, usually for little or no money, just to keep the enterprise afloat—between January and June of 1968, the Dead or its various members played the Carousel Ballroom almost 20 times, while the Airplane or its personnel put in eight appearances.

Coincidentally, as Graham recalled in Robert Greenfield’s Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, Graham decided he had to get out of the predominantly African-American neighborhood for which the Fillmore Auditorium was named because the area had gotten too dangerous for his mainly white audience in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. Graham had heard that the Carousel had turned into a money pit for the Dead and Airplane, so to secure the lease on the ballroom, Graham flew to Ireland to personally make his case to the building’s owner. After numerous rounds of bourbon, Graham had the Carousel’s lease, which was probably just as well for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

From 1968 to 1971, Graham also ran a music hall in New York City called, naturally, Fillmore East. The Airplane played numerous gigs there, as seen in this David Byrd poster from 1968.

“We were too scattered, too hippie to run the Carousel,” Balin says. “I don’t know anybody who was as good a businessman as Bill was. Bill was primo, top of the line, a former New Yorker, so he had the hustle.”

Of course, the transfer of the Carousel Ballroom’s lease from two rock bands to Bill Graham was hardly the most important event of 1968, a year when the American public was becoming increasingly impatient with the war in Vietnam. That disenchantment led indirectly to the assassination of yet another major political leader, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who only got into the 1968 presidential race when the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson, pulled out.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, hard drugs like heroin and speed had flooded former hippie havens such as the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, with predictably corrosive results. In addition, the bands themselves were starting to come apart, seen most dramatically in the exit by year’s end of Janis Joplin from Big Brother and the Holding Company. Not surprisingly, Balin played a part in that story, too.

“We were playing a concert down the coast,” Balin begins, referring to the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival held on May 18, 1968, at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. “I was sitting out in the audience, watching Jim Morrison and The Doors. And Janis, who was also performing, came up to me and said, ‘I want to talk to you. Come on.’ So we’re walking along, and we pass Jerry Garcia, and she said, ‘Jerry, come on, I want to talk to you.’ So we got in this old pickup truck and started driving, with Jerry behind the wheel, Janis in the center, and me riding shotgun.”

During the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival in 1968, Janis Joplin confided her conflicted feeling about leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company for a solo career to Marty Balin and Jerry Garcia.

Joplin was distraught because her new manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, wanted her to leave Big Brother. “He wanted her to have a better band,” Balin says, “but there was something so raw and funky about Big Brother. They just fit her so perfectly, with Jim Gurley on that crazy heroin guitar of his. But that’s what the record companies did to everybody—they always wanted to break the girl away from the band. I’m sure they tried to do that with Grace and the Airplane, saying, ‘Oh, you’re better than they are. We can make you a superstar. You don’t need these people.’ I don’t know, but I’m sure she got the same hassle.

“Anyway, Janis was upset because these were her friends. Big Brother was who she had started out with, so she wanted our advice about whether she should leave her old buddies, or not. We told her to follow her heart, and to follow the path that would be best for her music. In the end,” Balin says, “I don’t know if she made the best decision, but it was tough for her because Grossman was telling her that he was going to make her a big, big star. She didn’t realize,” he adds, “that she was already a big, big star.”

By the summer of 1968, Jefferson Airplane had made the cover of "LIFE" magazine, but the band's members were already starting to break into little independent units, as the art direction of the magazine's cover unwittingly suggests.

Nor was Joplin the only one struggling with success. In 1966, Balin had given Jefferson Airplane its first single, “It’s No Secret,” a rockin’ love song on its debut LP, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.” But when Grace Slick entered the picture in the fall of 1967, she brought “Somebody to Love” with her from the Great Society (her former Great Society bandmate and brother-in-law, Darby Slick, had written it as “Someone to Love”), as well as a song of her own called “White Rabbit.” Both would make it onto the Airplane’s next album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” along with three tracks written by Balin (“Comin’ Back to Me,” “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”) plus two more Balin co-wrote, including “Today,” one of several tracks on the album featuring Jerry Garcia on lead guitar.

Despite Balin’s prodigious output, Slick’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became the songs people remembered most from “Surrealistic Pillow,” which reached No. 3 on the “Billboard” charts. Those two songs and the hype around their singer may be why D. A. Pennebaker, the director of the film version of Monterey Pop, kept his cameras on Grace Slick, even while Marty Balin was singing. Those two songs could also be why the editors of “LIFE” magazine decided to put Jefferson Airplane on the cover of its June 28, 1968, issue, with Grace Slick sitting in the top cube of a plexiglass pyramid. In fact, in the opinion of lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, those two songs are probably why Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The AIrplane's biggest successes often had little to do with Balin, which left him the odd man out in the band that he'd founded.

By his own admission, Balin struggled at times with Slick’s fame from the 1967 release of “Surrealistic Pillow” until he left the group in 1971—the Airplane lumbered on for another year or so without him. Even after Balin rejoined Kantner and Slick in 1975 for one of the many incarnations of Jefferson Starship, and several of that band’s biggest early hits—“Caroline,” “Miracles”— it was always Slick who got the spotlight. “For a while, the radio stations were playing ‘Miracles’ every hour on the hour,” Balin says, “and every time they played it, they’d say, ‘That was Grace Slick and Jefferson Starship.’ They never said ‘Marty Balin and Jefferson Starship,’ but I got my check, thank God.”

To hear Balin tell it today, Jefferson Starship was your classic rock ’n’ roll nightmare, whose creative sparks were extinguished by egos, drugs, and alcohol. Even before he left the band in 1978, he was so burned out that he turned down the chance to front an up-and-coming group called Journey, leaving the door open for Steve Perry, whose voice was very much in the Balin mold. For its part, the Starship replaced Balin with Mickey Thomas, who, in 1985, would share lead vocals with Grace Slick on “We Built This City,” which “Rolling Stone” readers voted the worst song of the decade and “GQ” magazine labeled “the most detested song in human history.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Balin had nothing to do with that tune.

Jefferson Airplane's third album, "After Bathing at Baxter's," 1967, featured several tracks that were simply designed to sound good to a listener high on LSD, but the studio indulged the excess because "Surrealistic Pillow" had been such a big hit.

Balin’s Starship experience may have been exhausting, but the unraveling of Jefferson Airplane broke his heart. It wasn’t even that Slick had stolen his spotlight. Rather, Balin hated the way the Airplane had balkanized into discrete units—Kantner and Slick, Kaukonen and Casady—each of which was carving out its own musical niche, and neither of which seemed to want to have much to do with him.

“I’d go to these dark, acid parties, and there would be my pops.”

“When the Airplane became famous, everybody was pretty much into their own little ego. ‘I want to do my thing.’ Well, I always thought it was our thing, or the band thing. Pretty soon, Jorma didn’t want to play with me because the songs I was writing were too square. Grace was off in her own little world, and Paul was doing his massive military-march songs. We used to write together, but after a while, Paul didn’t want to write with me, either. I felt kind of left out because everyone was just separating off into their own little worlds. We came together and did the same old show on stage, but making records and working together became harder and harder.”

Jorma Kaukonen sees the band’s struggles with success a bit differently, as he explained in Got a Revolution. “Marty really had this thing about ‘my band,’ and maybe it started that way. But it really wasn’t anybody’s band. I don’t think Marty’s ever gotten over the fact that we didn’t just back him up and do what he said. We did drive him nuts, but when he left, the Airplane was pretty much without direction.”

The harmonies achieved by Grace Slick and Marty Balin were sublime. Indeed, after Balin left the band in the spring of 1971, Slick insisted that he be replaced with another male singer so that she'd have a male voice to complement her own.

On the other hand, Kaukonen completely cops to being seduced by success, as he explained to Nick Hasted in a 2016 interview published in Uncut. “We became rock stars,” he says of the period in 1967, when Jefferson Airplane was in the studio working on its third album, the very psychedelic “After Bathing at Baxter’s.” “The Beatles had rented this house when they came to L.A., so of course we had to rent it, and it had all kinds of absurd amenities. A pistol range, and a window into the pool underwater. I think we enjoyed being famous and enjoyed having money, and I’m sure some abuses went along with it. It was a nonstop carnival.”

In the same Hasted interview, Jack Casady puts it this way: “Was Marty on the outside by then? It sounds so neat and tidy, [but] at the time I’m not so sure. Marty was dealing with the fact that there was another hugely strong personality in Grace Slick, and you’ve gotta understand, at the time, hardly anyone had seen a woman in a rock band really strong like that. But Marty was opening up his singing style, too, to match the improvisatory style of the way Jorma and I were driving the band. Jorma and I were starting to faction off together as a musical entity, and Marty was left on his own a little bit. ‘Crown Of Creation’ [the band’s fourth album] displayed some of those different directions on the record.”

In 1969, when a free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Motor Speedway turned violent due to the overly aggressive policing of the show by members of the Hells Angels, who'd been hired as security, Marty Balin (at center, in white hat) stepped into the fray to stop a member of the gang from beating up a fan. He was knocked unconscious for his trouble. Courtesy Robert Altman.

And then there were the drugs. “There was a period after acid when cocaine, methedrine, and all this crap heroin came in,” Balin says. “I wasn’t into that, but it changed everything. It for sure changed my band. When I used to walk out onto the stage, I’d look at the back of the amps and see a pile of cocaine, methedrine, and I don’t even know what. And I’d say to myself, ‘Oh, so this is how we’re going to play tonight,’ and sure enough you could predict how a show would go according to the drugs lined up on the back of the amps. That stuff made everybody crazy.”

By 1969, the bloom was long since off the rose, even before the decade ended in violence at Altamont. But Balin had one more Airplane album in him, “Volunteers,” for which he wrote the lyrics and sang the lead vocal on the title track. After Altamont, in 1970, the band toured only sporadically, kept off the road by drummer Spencer Dryden’s departure, Grace Slick’s pregnancy, and Kaukonen and Casady’s increasing interest in their offshoot project, Hot Tuna, which continues to perform to this day. But it was an event unrelated to the palace intrigue surrounding members of Jefferson Airplane that really caused Marty Balin, in April of 1971, to leave the band he’d founded—the death of his friend Janis Joplin, from an overdose of heroin, on October 4, 1970.

Balin's last album with Jefferson Airplane was "Volunteers," 1969, for which he wrote the lyrics and sang lead vocals on the title track. His band performed on October 4, 1970, the night his good friend Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose, but he did not.

“I remember one night I was at RCA Victor,” Balin says of an evening a few days before Joplin died. “It was late and nobody was there but me. I was listening to some tapes, and in comes Janis, and she says, ‘Marty, I’ve just made the greatest record ever! You’ve got to hear it! ’ So we got a couple bottles, went over to Sunset Sound, got drunk, and enjoyed her record, ‘Pearl,’ over and over and over.

“She would be sitting up there on the mixing board, and I would be sitting in a chair,” Balin recalls, “and after every track, she would go, ‘Listen to that. Am I greatest singer in the world or what?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, Janis, you’re the greatest singer who ever lived. You’re it. You’re the main man.’ And the truth is,” he adds, “she was the greatest singer in the world at the time.” The night of Joplin’s death, Jefferson Airplane would be on stage at Winterland, co-headlining the first of two nights with the Grateful Dead and each band’s offshoot, Hot Tuna and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Balin was too distraught to attend.

(To learn more about Marty Balin, or to purchase a copy of his latest album, “The Greatest Love,” visit his website and Facebook page.)

Tom Rapp, ’60s Folk Experimentalist And Civil Rights Attorney, Dead At 70 | BPR

I found this link on the Middle Earth Facebook group. Tom Rapp was part of a great late 60s band called Pearls Before Swine. They were one of my favourites. He was a really great songwriter and a big influence on me. He wrote a song called Rocket Man which inspired Elton John to write his version, which obviously became a big hit. Tom’s was better in my opinion, though.

Tom Rapp, a civil rights attorney and musician best known for his late-’60s and early-’70s recordings under the name Pearls Before Swine, has died while in hospice care at his home in Melbourne, Fla., his publicist confirmed to NPR Music. He was 70 years old.

Like many of his generation, Rapp was inspired by Elvis and The Everly Brothers. But it was hearing Bob Dylan‘s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the early ’60s that finally galvanized him to begin writing music in earnest. (A possibly apocryphal tale goes that Rapp and Dylan actually competed as children in the same talent contest, with Dylan placing fifth, Rapp second.)

Pearls Before Swine’s first record, One Nation Underground, released in 1967, wore that influence plainly on its sleeve — not so much the fraught Hieronymous Bosch extract that adorned its cover, but in the Xeroxing of Dylan’s vocal delivery (with the addition of Rapp’s notable and endearing speech impediment) heard on the song “Playmate.” While Rapp may have been emulating on the mic there, the rest of the music on “Playmate” is woven with forward-thinking threads of psychedelia and garage rock. Further on, Rapp steps into his own, even presaging punk’s approach to institutional fealty (don’t) in the lyrics of “Drop Out!” and an avant-garde approach to a cursing word, spelled out in Morse code, on “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse.”

The album would go on to sell “about 250,000,” Rapp told NPR Music’s Bob Boilen last fall during a conversation centered on its 50th anniversary reissue. Despite the impressive sales, Rapp and his bandmates received next to no money from them. Bernard Stollman, who ran the label ESP-Disk’ that released One Nation Underground and its follow-up, told them that “the CIA and the Mafia were putting [the records] out themselves,” and so the sales weren’t ending with money in the pocket of ESP-Disk’ and, by extension, Pearls Before Swine. (Or many of the label’s other artists, the story goes.)

Rapp would go on to release eight more well-regarded records — Balaclava, the follow-up to One Nation Underground, perhaps highest among them — before utterly disappearing from music in 1974, not long after opening a concert for Patti Smith.

Infused with the spirit of the counterculture, but not willing to take his own advice and “drop out,” Rapp headed to college and, from there, law school, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1984. Rapp was a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia until 2001, after which he returned again to Florida. His practice emphasized reining in corporations and local governments.

As much as his music, Rapp’s work as a lawyer and his attitude towards his rediscovery in the popular imagination were illustrative of his spirit. Nearly 17 years ago, Rapp’s career was profiled for Weekend Edition by Peter Clowney. Rapp was bemused at the bloom of his late-in-life celebrity, treating it with a humbled, arm’s-length detachment, the attitude of someone who had long since filled his life.

Describing that rediscovery, which began around 1992 while he was in Philadelphia, Rapp said: “They call me a psychedelic godfather and they have these articles about how I’m a legend. The way that works is, you do some albums in the ’60s that are OK, you go away for 30 years, and you don’t die — then you’re a legend.”

During that piece, Rapp shared his “lessons from the ’60s.” They began with a dark half-joke: “One of the lessons of the ’60s was that assassination works.” He continued: “Love is real. Justice is real. Countries have no morals; you have to kick them to get them to do the right thing. Honesty is possible and necessary. And everything is not for sale.”

Source: Tom Rapp, ’60s Folk Experimentalist And Civil Rights Attorney, Dead At 70 | BPR

Overcoming the Cultural Crisis by Otto Gross (1913)

Front cover of the German "Die Aktion&quo...

Front cover of the German “Die Aktion” from 1914. Illustration of Charles Péguy’s on the occasion of his death made by Egon Schiele (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of revolution: i.e., this is what it is destined to become because it ferments insurrection within the psyche, and liberates individuality from the bonds of its own unconscious. It is destined to make us inwardly capable of freedom, destined to prepare the ground for the revolution.

The incomparable revaluation of all values, with which the imminent future will be filled, begins in this present time with Nietzsche‘s thinking about the depths of the soul and with Freud’s discovery of the so-called psychoanalytic technique. This latter is a practical method which for the first time makes it possible to liberate the unconscious for empirical knowledge: i.e., for us it has now become possible to know ourselves. With this a new ethic is born, which will rest upon the moral imperative to seek real knowledge about oneself and one’s fellow men.

What is so overpowering in this new obligation to appreciate the truth is that until today we have known nothing of the question that matters incomparably above all others – the question of what is intrinsic, essential in our own being, our inner life, our self and that of our fellow human beings; we have never even been in position to inquire about these things. What we are learning to know is that, as we are today, each one of us possesses and recognises as his own only a fraction of the totality embraced by his psychic personality.

In every psyche without exception the unity of the functioning whole, the unity of consciousness, is torn in two, an unconscious has split itself off and maintains its existence by keeping itself apart from the guidance and control of consciousness, apart from any kind of self-observation, especially that directed at itself.

I must assume that knowledge of the Freudian method and its important results is already widespread. Since Freud we understand all that is inappropriate and inadequate in our mental life to be the results of inner experiences whose emotional content excited intense conflict in us. At the time of those experiences – especially in early childhood – the conflict seemed insoluble, and they were excluded from the continuity of the inner life as it is known to the conscious ego. Since then they have continued to motivate us from the unconscious in an uncontrollably destructive and oppositional way. I believe that what is really decisive for the occurrence of repression is to be found in the inner conflict … rather than in relation to the sexual impulse. Sexuality is the universal motive for the infinite number of internal conflicts, though not in itself but as the object of a sexual morality which stands in insoluble conflict with everything that is of value and belongs to willing and reality.

It appears that at the deepest level the real nature of these conflicts may always be traced back to one comprehensive principle, to the conflict between that which belongs to oneself and that which belongs to the other, between that which is innately individual and that which has been suggested to us, i.e., that which is educated or otherwise forced into us.

This conflict of individuality with an authority that has penetrated into our own innermost self belongs more to the period of childhood than to any other time.

The tragedy is correspondingly greater as a person’s individuality is more richly endowed, is stronger in its own particular nature. The earlier and the more intensely that the capacity to withstand suggestion and interference begins its protective function, the earlier and the more intensely will the self-divisive conflict be deepened and exacerbated. The only natures to be spared are those in whom the predisposition towards individuality is so weakly developed and is so little capable of resistance that under the pressure of suggestion from social surroundings, and the influence of education, it succumbs, in a manner of speaking, to atrophy and disappears altogether – natures whose guiding motives are at last composed entirely of alien, handed-down standards of evaluation and habits of reaction. In such second-rate characters a certain apparent health can sustain itself, i.e., a peaceful and harmonious functioning of the whole of the soul or, more accurately, of what remains of the soul. On the other hand, each individual who stands in any way higher than this normal contemporary state of things is not, in existing, conditions, in a position to escape pathogenic conflict and to attain his individual healthi.e., the full harmonious development of the highest possibilities of his innate individual character.

It is understood from all this that such characters hitherto, no matter in what outward form they manifest themselves – whether they are opposed to laws and morality, or lead us positively beyond the average, or collapse internally and become ill – have been perceived with either disgust, veneration or pity as disturbing exceptions whom people try to eliminate. It will come to be understood that, already today, there exists the demand to approve these people as the healthy, the warriors, the progressives, and to learn from and through them.

Not one of the revolutions in recorded history has succeeded in establishing freedom for individuality. They all fell flat, each time as precursors of a new bourgeoisie, they ended in a hurried desire to conform to general norms. They have collapsed because the revolutionary of yesterday carried authority within himself. Only now can it be recognized that the root of all authority lies in the family, that the combination of sexuality and authority, as it shows itself in the patriarchal family still prevailing today, claps every individuality in chains.

The times of crisis in advanced cultures have so far always been attended by complaints about the loosening of the ties of marriage and family life … but people could never hear in this “immoral tendency” the life affirming ethical crying out of humanity for redemption. Everything went to wrack and ruin, and the problem of emancipation from original sin, from the enslavement of women for the sake of their children, remained unsolved.

The revolutionary of today, who, armed with the psychology of the unconscious has a vision of a free, happy future for the relationship between the sexes, fights against the most primal form of rape, against the father and against father right. The coming revolution is the revolution for mother right.* It does not matter under what outward form and by what means it comes about.

(From Die Aktion, April 1913, reprinted in Anarchism…, vol.1 p281, Robert Graham.)

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!