Book review: 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage

Ask any music fan, preferably one who is longer in the tooth, what they would regard as being THE significant year of the 60s for pop culture.

Thursday, 4th February 2016, 10:00 am
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded byJon Savage
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded byJon Savage

Chances are most will respond, fairly instantly, that is has to be 1967.

After all it was the Summer of Love and Flower Power, words that still roll off the tongue so easily as to have become little more than a cliché, thanks to publicity and hype then, but more so now thanks to the seemingly-endless retro documentaries on TV.

In reality, those society-changing seeds were already planted, being nurtured and well on the way to full bud some 12 months before what seemed like the whole world had decamped to San Francisco.

Writer, broadcaster and music journalist Jon Savage sets out a compelling, convincing case that long before those colourful kaftans were in full flow, it was definitely 1966, rather than 67, which marked a global sea change and one, indeed, responsible for shaking up and shaping pop’s future.

That was the pivotal year or, as Savage spells out from the very start in his book title, the year the decade exploded, whether that be pop music, pop art, fashion or even radical politics.

Savage, like myself, became a teenager in the summer of 1966 and his comments have something of a familiar ring to them when he reveals he spent much of the year bathed in the music he saw on TV or while tuned into hours of pirate radio.

But he doesn’t depend on simply recalling his own nostalgic take on those days – limited, as that would necessarily be, by virtue of his then-tender schoolboy age! – to put things in perspective or to reach conclusions about the significance of the events of 1966 to all that has followed.

No, Savage has clearly done much more than just the minimum amount of homework on a presumably pet subject while researching his impressive book.

So where to start? By his own admission, he re-listened to the records of the day, and on 45rpm singles where possible. His premise throughout is that increasingly the music reflected what was happening in the world and was not just a matter of image and sales.

The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Donovan and Velvet Underground. Just a few of the bigger names explored, along with a host of less-familiar seminal artists, using archival sources which are exhaustively referenced and listed at the end of the book, along with a discography.

The book contains 12 essays, one per month, based on one record and then expanded out into the themes and events of that month here in Britain and America, illustrating how much the music was connected to things happening outside the pop culture bubble. Each of these chapters starts with a nostalgic two page spread, in greyscale, of magazine covers, posters, adverts and even photographs of relevant 45rpm singles in close-up glory.

There is certainly nothing like getting yourself into the right frame of mind and, for those would-be readers who might feel they need even more inspiration, Savage has compiled a two CD set of many of those songs and called it....1966.

(Faber, hardback, £20)