Monday, 31 January 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 89 (Top Five): The most influential non-musicians onthe 1960s

This week, another of our mad little existential debates for you. Anyone who has done even a little amount of research into the 1960s will know that the sudden impact of the Beatles was bound to happen sometime, some place, in some format to somebody. It just seems like something had to give – the more you read about the years up to 1963 and the outpouring of Beatlemania more or less around the world in that year the more you realise that the world was just waiting for something to happen. The Beatles were just lucky enough (or unlucky enough, given George Harrison’s later comments about ‘giving up his nervous system’ to be in the band) to be there (and The Beatles were hardly the only band connecting to rock and roll and looking for something new either – almost every artist on our list from the 1960s was gigging before the band had even met Brian Epstein). Of course it goes without saying that the biggest influences on the bands were other bands, mainly American musicians like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly or unsung heroes like The Everly Brothers, Arthur Alexander and The Kingsmen. But that would be boring and far too straightforward for our top five (we also covered something similar with our five greatest pre-Beatles/Beach Boys songs on ‘News, Views and Music’ no 27 if that’s the sort of thing you want to read). So here are the top five non-musical influences on the 1960s era in general that broke the mould and allowed the unstoppable force of Beatlemania to take hold.

5) The Marx Brothers: What do a bunch of comedians who were arguably at their peak some 30 years before ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ have to do with the 1960s spirit of freedom and equality? Well, that question can only be asked by anybody who hasn’t actually seen the films (and I recommend every Beatles and Monkees fan does, simply to see where their filmic influences came from) because The Marx Brothers are pure 1960s nihilism in every way but the dress sense. Every time Groucho Marx insults a celebrity, every time Harpo insults social class by running off with a young rich girl, every time Chico wreaks havoc with a piano in stark contrast to how you were told top behave in your prim and proper music lessons, you can just see the children of the 1930s and 40s going ‘wow, I so wish I could do that’, even if they don’t always get the jokes the brothers put in simply to keep the mums and dads amused. Anyone whose ever seen Groucho Marx stand up to authority, actively insult it and get away with it without question and laughed their socks off as the fuming aristocrats is surely a child of the 60s, whatever their generation, and the comedy partnership’s influence on the whole anti-establishment flower power era, via the jokes in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and The Monkees’ TV show, is incalculable. Surprisingly though the only Marx Brothers reference I can find in song is a throwaway line on Cat Stevens’ ‘Ghost Town’, where Chico and Harpo are throwing custard pies at their ‘brother’ Karl Marx! Another leading influence is of course The Goon Show – and particularly chief writers Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine – who were even more directly responsible for inspiring John Lennon in particular, but that’s something that’s been better written about by other writers elsewhere. Suffice to say the word-punning of Beatles press conferences, their Christmas fanclub records and Lennon’s three books of prose would never have been the same without Eccles, Bluebottle and Neddy Seagoon.

4) Tony Hancock, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson: While The Marx Brothers and their many gag writers specialised in situations you wanted to be in but could never possibly be brave enough to do, the other side of the coin is comedians who specialised in making real life funny. Writers Galton and Simpson were masters of the art, the first real writers to make working class situations palatable and hilarious to middle class audiences and Tony Hancock was the world’s greatest comedic interpreter then and now, delivering more with a raised eyebrow and an obstinate silence than a modern comedians’ hours worth of dialogue. The team’s influence on the 1960s is huge, pointing out a world that isn’t as good as it should have been despite the promises of 1950s reform back in a time when any criticism of the period immediately after World War Two was frowned upon and effectively turning chuckling at your problems into a mainstream art. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without Hancock and the few who came after him to pave the way the social protest of the 1960s, starting with folk and moving through to psychedelia, would have been enjoyed by the fringes only rather than the average man in the street. Hancock even gets a mention on the Dave Davies song ‘Fortis Green’ from his ‘Bug’ album, with a young Dave settling back in his chair to listen to ‘Ancock’s ‘Alf ‘Our’) and Roger Waters surely had Hancock in mind for his snappy, disillusioned child-hating teacher delivering a ‘requiem for the post-war dream’ (as on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Final Cut’ LP).

3) James Dean: I must admit I’ve never cared much for James Dean films, which are often poorly acted and, by comparison to what came later, badly thought out. But the difference between the ‘look’ before and the ‘look’ after Jimmy Dean’s portrayal of troubled teenagers is quite extraordinary, giving some sort of a voice to teenagers of the 1950s who felt abandoned by WW2 and the lack of opportunities in post-war Britain. The look also chimed well with the music coming out of America at the time – the sort of music outlined above that became anglicised and grew into the 1960s, even if there’s little or no music in his films for real, so simply had to be mentioned here as perhaps the biggest example of pre-Beatles rebellion in the 20th century. The one musical reference we can point you to is Brian Wilson’s moving a capella Beach Boys song ‘A Young Man Is Gone’, from the ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ album. 

2) JFK: Nowadays you look at JFK’s three-year legacy and think ‘what was the man doing?!’ Despite the promise of radical reform and change, most of Kennedy’s time in office was marked by avoidable accidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was only in his last year that Kennedy was anything like as good as his reputation supposes, when he at last stuck his neck on the line concerning civil rights. But of course history didn’t record it that way at the time and the fact that a ‘young’ man (at 40!), quite distinct from the old and weary world war generation was having a go at running the country with a promise of ‘change’ meant that when he died in office a wave of grief swept the Western world. (Obama is to JFK what 9/11 is to WW2, but that’s another essay for another time). I’m not the first fan to point out that the three months between Kennedy’s assassination in Novemeber 1963 and the first, hysterically-greeted Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964 is perfect timing, giving America long enough to grieve their fallen hero and a certain amount of hope and escapism thereafter. But I will go even further and say that, in America at least,The Beatles and all who came after them are Kennedy’s successors much more than they are Elvis’ or (shudder) Cliff Richard’s, offering a new alternative way of life based on greater freedom for all that represented the changing of the guard via youth and vigourthat goes far beyond just their music. Dare I say it, JFK was too unpopular at the time he died to make a second term of office (unless things had radically changed of course and to be fair he was changing in 1963, so I’ll guess we’’ll never know) and dare I say it The Beatles would never have been quite the phenomenon they were in America had he lost that election of 1964. Musical AAA references for JFK abound, albeit mainly in later recordings about his assassination (The Beach Boys’ ‘The Warmth Of The Sun’ is the best, a moving eulogy written the night after his death should be your first port of call, while The Kinks’ ‘Give The People What They Want’ and The Monkees’ ‘Mommy and Daddy’ are the best examples of songs looking at the JFK assassination conspiracy).

1) Hitler: Undoubtedly the biggest single influence on the 1960s happened over a decade before, when Hitler pushed his luck too far and by invading Poland started a World War (that, erm, only happened in Europe, America, Japan and Russia but we’ll forget about that for now). I cannot stress how important WW2 is for the 1960s philosophy: childhoods spent on bombsites or having been evacuated with or without parents dead from bombings or on the frontline haunt many an AAA song (Roger Waters is again the biggest example, with the death of his dad in the war, despite being a conscientious objector, a key influence on most of the mid-to-late period Pink Floyd albums). Furthermore, having lived through or in most cases been born into a terrifying World War not of their making turned more and more AAA members into musicians, making them determined to create a new society based more on peace and not at all like the austere, frightening world they were brought up in (at least they will once things get moving on a bit – oh and Pete Townshend is still the only AAA artists to come right out and say all this, mind, but you can’t write a site like this without a little bit of conjecture). So why this world war and not, say the first World War? Well, nobody ever really talked about that war once they got home by and large – it’s only since the 1970s when our vertans started dying of old age that we’ve heard endless documentaries and interviews recorded for posterity before it’s all forgotten. But when the soldiers first got home in 1919 they simply didn’t talk about such things, they brought back too many unhappy memories and distressed the wives and children they’d left behind. The same would undoubtedly have happened in WW2 had it not been for the bombing raids that involved civilians not just soldiers on both sides of the war for the first time and rationing, which meant it was a subject that stared everyone in the face for six years and couldn’t be avoided (unless you’re American of course, in which case make that two). In short, something akin to the 1960s was inevitable in some form after the events of 1939-45 and as luck would have it the best practitioners for this brave new world turned out to be four musicians from Liverpool, not a group of artists, writers or politicians. To end this little speech, I have to add how fantastic its always seemed to me that the real start of the 1960s and the promise of a new era happens when The Beatles, who grew up in bomb-shelters and the devastation of Liverpool, end up playing in a German club surrounded by the bomb-shelters and devastation of Hamburg. In 1960, less than 15 years after the end of the Second World War, a whole new way of life is growing up for people everywhere – and its happening to five people who were physically born into the devastation of WW2 (Lennon was, famously, born during a Liverpool air raid in October 1940) . The road to peace still starts here and the fact that it couldn’t last is no shame on those early pioneers who started it.

And that’s it, another end of another issue. See you next time!

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