The Null Device

The Unswinging Sixties

The BBC News Magazine takes a look at the biggest-selling records of the 1960s, revealing that, in contrast with the super-groovy sounds later associated with the decade, they were, by all accounts, not very cool:
the best-sellers of the Sixties include healthy dollops of yodelling, crooning and clarinet-tootling among the recordings that are now part of the rock canon.
Among the 1960s biggest-selling recording artists in the UK were easy-listening crooners like Ken Dodd, Engelbert Humperdinck and Frank Ifield (who not only crooned and didn't rock but also yodelled; completely unironically, of course) and wobbleboard maestro Rolf Harris. As far as I know, none of them ever ended up on a Ben Sherman T-shirt.

Of course, the 1960s and "the 1960s" are completely different things and shouldn't be confused with each other. The former is a stretch of ten solar years, starting and finishing at arbitrary points, whereas the latter is a cultural construct created in retrospect by observing what happened in the former, filtering out inconveniently outlying points and making up stories about it until a narrative emerges. And as the narrative emerges, often events that happened get subsumed into the background. So, while in the 1960s, groovy youth culture flourished in reaction against a more square status quo, and this status quo was the backdrop; "the 1960s", however, were a riot of psychedelic colour and stylish coolness; everybody was a Mod or a Rocker or else taking acid and listening to the Beatles. Much like everybody in the 1970s was a punk, a disco dancer or a super-smooth yacht rocker, and the 1980s were all about new-wave synthpop, fluorescent colours and the odd bit of hair metal.

It's like a cultural equivalent of the psychoacoustic audio compression used in MP3 files. When a sound recording is encoded to a MP3 file, the algorithm analyses it and discards the frequencies that a human listener wouldn't notice. A MP3 file is essentially a caricature of the original recording made up of the more salient frequencies; your brain fills in the gaps and you don't notice the difference. In a similar way, the historical process of interpreting a decade involves thrashing out its salient characteristics and discarding the rest. It's an ongoing process, and "the 1960s" (and "the 1970s" and "the 1980s" and onward) keep evolving in line with contemporary tastes; "the 1960s" which The Bangles and Lenny Kravitz referenced in the 1980s is not the same as the more rockist, geezerish "the 1960s" of post-Britpop lad-indie Britain. Neither, however, featured Rolf Harris.

There are 3 comments on "The Unswinging Sixties":

Posted by: Greg Sun Jun 6 13:49:58 2010

I've thought about this a bit because I agree, heavy filtering seems to happen when pop-culture decades are remembered. This struck me before w.r.t. the sixties. I was alive for 8 of them and my memory is of crewcuts and awful music. The rock/art/peace/hair revolution imagined to have taken place occurred among a small group of uni-students, somewhere else. (Ok, I lived in Brisbane, but that kind of supports my point.) Hippies and other sub-cultures was something you read about, not saw on the street. Same with the 70s and 80s - what is remembered now (Velvets, punk, post-punk etc etc) was at the time but a tiniest fraction of the music being made, and basically invisible. I interpret your "cultural data compression" as a variation on Sturgeon's Law - ninety percent of every decade is derivative crap, and we choose to remember only the tiny proportion that was good and/or influential. Except at trivia nights and bad-movie parties.

Posted by: acb Sun Jun 6 15:21:27 2010

How far behind the UK/US was Australia back then in terms of mass culture? How far was Brisbane behind Melbourne/Sydney? (As William Gibson said, "the future's already here, it's just not evenly distributed".)

Sturgeon's Law implies that fitness is equivalent to what people judge as worthiness. I contend that that doesn't hold; that a lot of the stuff that makes the cut is mediocre but catchy, while a lot of works which would be notable do vanish without a trace; a small proportion get picked up by critics and lauded initially, and a further few get discovered serendipitously years later (look at some of the obscurantist crate-diggers' favourites that bubble up from time to time, from 1920s blues onwards), while a lot of works vanish without a trace. Whether a work is remembered or vanishes has a lot to do with luck.

Posted by: Greg Sun Jun 6 22:32:03 2010

Two good questions. Re the first, I'm not sure it is "mass" culture we're talking about. Most people were buying Humperdink etc, as the BBC article shows. My claim would be that the swinging sixties / hippy / summer of love movement, though it got some media attention, was engaged in by only a tiny proportion of the population. The same later with punk, by which time I was sentient. Very soon after a small number of Londoners got into it, a small number of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane residents did too, but gee the numbers were tiny.

The speed of transmission from place to place was swift. What counts more, IMO, is the speed of transmission from early adopters to mainstream consciousness, which in the case of Australian punk was more due to the Angels than the Saints.

Even the Beatles, while they had a lot of top 40 airplay in the early 60s, were heard less later. Obviously some people were buying the albums we now think of as hugely influential, but mainstreamers were hearing other, now forgotten, bands