A few nights ago we watched Julien Temple’s super film, Keith Richards: The Origin of the Species, covering the guitarist’s early years, from birth to 18, following it with Jon Savage’s film, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, based on his expansive book which I’ve just finished reading.
Who would have thought it? The reprobate Keith Richards re-imagined as an avuncular national treasure? Temple’s film was a delight; I don’t think I stopped grinning once. Cleverly weaving Keith reminiscing about his childhood and family connections into an intricate montage of archive newsreel, TV commercials, old public information films and dramatic reconstructions in monochrome, Origin of the Species successfully evoked what it felt like to be part of the generation born in the 40s who grew up in the still grey and hidebound 50s.
Whoever did the visuals research for the film deserves an Oscar, managing to source footage that perfectly matched Keith’s recollections, sometimes adding a tongue in cheek comment. We knew we were in for an entertaining ride from the opening: a clip from the 1945 documentary A Diary for Timothy directed by Humphrey Jennings to illustrate Keith’s coming into the world. We joined it just as the narrator (whose words were penned by E M Forster) pondered the future of the new-born baby in a hospital bed:
And what are going to do? You’ll have more grandiose things ahead – unemployment after the war, and then another war, and then more unemployment! Will it be like that again? Are you going to have the greed for money, or power, out of all decency as they have done in the past, or are you going to make the world a different place – you and the other babies?
Cut to Keith, creased face wreathed in cigarette smoke. Cue title: Origin of the Species. The species in question being the rebel, the bad boy, the two fingers to authority and rules. Or as Julien Temple put in an interview with the BBC:
Listening to the early Stones as a kid changed everything for me. I felt a new way of living emerging, a new kind of person becoming possible – something I wanted to be a part of. And without a doubt I thought Keith Richards was the Origin Of The Species. This film sets out to explore how both he and the 60s in England came about.
Anyone expecting a documentary about the early days of the Stones might have been disappointed. This was more like social history, focussing on the lost world of Keith’s childhood and adolescence and bringing the period in which he grew up vividly back to life. Richards’ childhood, growing up in Kent in the aftermath of World War II, was a spartan one: post-war rationing, bomb sites, housing shortages. People got their entertainment from the cinema or radio. When TV came, there was just one channel. Keith’s first holidays began on the back of parents’ tandem as they set off on the three day cycle ride to Devon from London.
But this was also the era of the founding of the NHS, a massive programme of building council houses, and (just in time for Keith) the ending of National Service. The film emphasised how this background shaped the outlook of Keith and his generation. It also revealed fascinating details about Keith’s family and the influence his parents, grandfather and other relatives had on his outlook on life.
His parents, Bert and Doris, had met working in the same factory in Edmonton -Bert was a printer and Doris worked in the office. Bert’s family were committed socialists. His father, Keith’s grandfather, had played a key role in building
the Labour Party in Walthamstow in the days of Keir Hardie before the First World War. In the years between the wars Walthamstow became a Labour stronghold, a safe seat for Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour prime minister, who sent a message when Ernie died, calling him ‘the salt of the earth.’
Keith’s grandmother, Eliza, had been elected a Labour councillor before Ernie, and
eventually became the mayor of Walthamstow. Dedicated to improving child welfare, she was a real reformer: as chairman of the housing committee she spearheaded one of the biggest council house building programmes in the country.
Keith was an only child and it’s clear that his mum, Doris, was his rock. She was a radio fanatic. Keith described how she’d spin the wireless knob between the Home Service and Light Programme
If I’ve got anything to do with music, it’s from being brought up by Doris. Music everywhere. If there was silence in the house, something was wrong.
His mother’s family was quite different to his father’s, descendants of Huguenot from France. Doris had six sisters and Keith always enjoyed visits to his aunts – all artistically inclined in one way or another and ‘about as bohemian as you could get.’ Surrounded by women, with seven daughters plus his wife, Keith’s grandfather Gus was another crucial figure in the future Stone’s life. Once a guitarist in a dance band, Gus instilled a love of music in the boy, and in a key act gave him his first guitar. An old Spanish guitar that hung on the wall, one day when Keith was nine or ten Gus took it down and said, ‘Here you go.’ He showed him the chords for a Spanish tune: ‘Play ‘Malaguena,’ you can play anything.’ A day later he was. There was no turning back.
There was much, much more to enjoy. Who would have thought that Keith once sang in his school choir? Or that he once sang before the Queen in Westminster Abbey? But when his voice broke, he was thrown out of the choir and forced to repeat a school year to make up for all the lessons they had missed.
Leaving school, he was yet another of his generation who spent an influential year or two soaking up rebel attitude and experimental culture at Art School where he soon realised it wasn’t art but selling stuff that he was being trained to do. He made one deliberate disaster of a job interview for ad agency J Walter Thompson before walking out. There was a feeling that change was coming:
The feeling in the air: it’s time to push. The world is ours now. We can rise or fall with it. The guitar looked at me and I looked at the guitar. I said, ‘Either you and me are going to get along or I’ll have to look for a job.
The film concludes with Keith describing the impact of hearing raw blues and unadulterated rock’n’roll on imported singles for the very first time – and with a brief mention of his fateful encounter with a teenage Mick Jagger, from whom he managed to inveigle the two albums by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry he had under his arm. He’d known Mick since he was about four years old. ‘But we don’t talk about that a lot’, he slurs before breaking out in that characteristic throaty guffaw.
The Arena documentary 1966: 50 Years Ago did a decent job of compressing the essence of Jon Savage’s book 1966: The Years the Decade Exploded into 60 minutes of film. Like Temple’s film it stitched together archive footage to paint a picture of ‘a year of restless stylistic development and the search for new forms of expression’.
The film began where Savage’s book ends – with John Lennon embarking on the recording sessions in December for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ which would prove as time-consuming and technically-challenging as those earlier in the year in which Brian Wilson had produced ‘Good Vibrations’. That same month the BBC made Christmas-tide viewers sit up in surprise when it broadcast Jonathan Miller’s hallucinogenic adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, complete with background music performed on the sitar by Ravi Shankar.
The important thing about Savage’s book is that though its central concern is with the music of 1966 – its ideas, attitudes and experimentation – it is also about the way in which music reflected the world in 1966 and was connected to events and ideas beyond pop culture. The Arena documentary did that, too, but it couldn’t match the sweep and complexity of Savage’s book.
Although Savage ranges across the worlds of politics, fashion, art, film, television and theatre, music is at its core. This book consists of twelve essays, one for each month of the year, each loosely based around a particular record, in which Savage expands on themes and events in both America and Britain. He makes a convincing case that 1966 – not 1967 or 1968, as is usually the case – was the turning point of the sixties, when old and new values collided, and the various liberation movements asserting personal identity (black power, women’s right, gay rights, consumerism) took shape, sometimes explosively.
He probes beneath the sunny nostalgia of our memories of that year contained in events such as England’s victory in the World Cup, ‘Swinging London’ and Carnaby Street, and singles (1966 was the last year in which singles outsold albums) like ‘Sunny Afternoon’, Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Summer in the City’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ to expose the tensions and psychoses of a troubled time.
For example, in his January essay he takes as his starting point Simon and Garfunkel reaching the US number 1 with ‘The Sound of Silence’ before riffing on a profound silence, born of terror and nightmares in the head, which, he argues, lay beneath the sound and fury of the year. ‘The lacuna at the heart of this extraordinary year’, he writes, was ‘the sound of nuclear explosion. By way of illustration he offers a single that probably few people heard that year – ‘A Quiet Explosion’ by a Birmingham band called The Uglys: ‘The quiet explosion, bomb’s about to fall’, they sang to an eerie, psychedelic riff.
1966 was the year that Peter Watkins’ harrowing Play for Today The War Game was banned by the BBC (I remember going to the Essoldo in Stockport to see it when it was given a short, X-certificate cinema release). It was the year I wrote in my diary of the terrifying news that an American B-52 bomber had exploded in flames after colliding with another plane over Palomares in Spain; the non-nuclear explosive of two of the four hydrogen bombs on board exploded when they crashed to earth, contaminating an area around the town. The wider context was the popularity of CND, the escalating war in Vietnam, and the burgeoning folk club scene where protest songs like ‘The War Drags On’, popularised the previous year by Donovan were the order of the day.
Another chapter offers a picture of the emergence of British teen culture as epitomised by Rolling Stones’ singles like ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, portraits by Ray Davies of The Kinks of the Swinging London scene in’Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ and other singles, the impact of Ready Steady Go and the pirate radio stations, and the growing interest in the depiction of inner psychological states in pop lyrics and films like the David Mercer-scripted Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.
It was too late to stop. As the period’s momentum increased, it was time to strike out for uncharted territory. All this energy, creativity and power had to mean something, bu what? It wasn’t just about money and chart positions, but a new way of looking at the world, as attitudes became politics, as personal breakdown pointed to social crisis.
This mood was captured superbly in another lesser-known single that I had never heard before but which is one of the highlights of the double CD compilation that Jon Savage has curated to accompany the book: ‘The London Boys’ by a 19-year old David Bowie:
Bow Bells strike another night
Your eyes are heavy and your limbs all ache
You’ve bought some coffee, butter and bread
You can’t make a thing cause the meter’s dead
You moved away
Told your folks you’re gonna stay away
Bright lights, Soho, Wardour street
You hope you make friends with the guys that you meet
Somebody shows you round
Now you’ve met the London boys
Things seem good again, someone cares about you
Oh, the first time that you tried a pill
You feel a little queasy, decidedly ill
You’re gonna be sick, but you mustn’t lose faith
To let yourself down would be a big disgrace
With the London boys, with the London boys
You’re only seventeen, but you think you’ve grown
In the month you’ve been away from your parents’ home
You take the pills too much
You don’t give a damn about that jobs you’ve got
So long as you’re with the London boys
A London boy, oh a London boy
Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy
A London boy, a London boy
You think you’ve had a lot of fun
But you ain’t got nothing, you’re on the run
It’s too late now, cause you’re out there boy
You’ve got it made with the rest of the toys
Now you wish you’d never left your home
You’ve got what you wanted but you’re on your own
With the London boys
Remarkable. You have to remind yourself that only three years had elapsed since the Beatles were selling short, monosyllabic singles about teenage love like ‘From Me to You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. Now it was assumed that pop lyrics would probe more deeply: ‘I Am a Rock’, ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘For What It’s Worth’, ‘How Can You Hang On To A Dream’.
However, Savage is certainly not suggesting that the entire output of the music industry was so elevated or so so serious-minded. He constantly reminds us that the charts were not filled with songs of angry protest or drug-induced psychedelic raves: in December the British charts were dominated by Jim Reeves’ ‘Distant Drums’, Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’, along with the Seekers and Val Doonican. In the States, the song that lorded over all the rest in the early part of the year was ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ sung by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. This patriotic song that held the deaths of American servicemen in Vietnam to be a worthy sacrifice was the biggest American hit of the year, and kept both the Stones and the Beatles from the top slot.
A great deal of writing about popular culture (echoed by endless documentaries that populate the Friday evening schedules on BBC 4) tends to be drearily repetitious, trivialising history by foregrounding events of minor importance. But what Savage achieves here is an analysis that balances the social and political context of the times – whether it be the escalation in the Vietnam War or the increasing violence surrounding the civil rights marches in the United States – with the cross-currents in popular music and culture which the times provoked. And so, in a brilliant essay entitled ‘Land of 1000 Dances: Tamla, Soul and the March Against Fear’, James Brown, the Supremes, Otis Redding and Nina Simone rub shoulders with the Selma marchers, Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael.
Meanwhile, in his November essay, Savage places the sunny optimism of the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ and the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ in sharp juxtaposition to the screening that month on BBC TV’s Wednesday Play of Cathy Come Home. Written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach, it was a searing indictment of bad housing and homelessness that broke all the rules of television drama. The Liverpool Echo said that it was ‘like a punch between the eyes’. Watched by just over a fifth of the UK population, the play had an immediate impact, with the campaign group Shelter set up within weeks. At the same time the Kinks’ ‘Dead End Street’ was riding high in the charts: ‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling./And the kitchen sink is leaking.’
Liberation: one chapter assesses the career of Joe Meek, architect of earlier pure pop hits like ‘Telstar’ and ‘Johnny Remember Me’ as a jumping-off point for considering the increasingly confident agitation for what would come to be termed gay rights, while another explores the parallel movement for female independence in Britain and America, both societies where women were still treated as second-class citizens.
Reviewing Jon Savage’s book for the Guardian, Bob Stanley wrote, ‘This is not only fine pop writing, but social history of a high order.’ He was right. This is a big book – 550 pages not including extensive notes and discography – but it’s an absorbing read. I think it’s fair to say that there were no revelations here for me, though for younger readers I think it offers a reliable route to understanding the political, social and cultural turmoil of the period. There’s also an accompanying double CD curated by Jon Savage that includes 48 of the singles (some of them highly obscure) to which he refers in the book.
Keith Richards: The Origin of the Species is available on BBC iPlayer for another three weeks – and also on YouTube here. The Arena documentary on 1966 is on iPLayer and has also been posted on YouTube here.