Resuscitating the Psychedelic Sensibility By James Penner
IN THE LAST DECADE, there have been a host of books that focus on the historical significance of one particular year. Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century(2014), Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013), and Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (2006). Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded makes a contribution to this emerging genre by boldly proclaiming that 1966 was a vibrant cultural moment that merits our attention some 50 years later.
Unlike Buruma and Caryl’s studies, Savage, a London-based music journalist and cultural historian, is not necessarily interested in political upheavals that cause seismic shifts in the geopolitical order. Instead, Savage is fascinated with pop music and the micro-events that cultural historians typically overlook. For Savage, the 45-rpm single is the ideal micro-event because it encapsulates how people were feeling and thinking at a particular moment. For the author, 1966 is crucial because it was the last year the 45 outsells the LP. Thus, 45s become Savage’s central primary sources in his cultural history:
I was attracted to 1966 because of the music and what I hear in it: ambition, acceleration, and compression. So much is packed into the 45s from this period: ideas, attitudes, lyrics, and musical experimentation that in the more indulgent years to come would be stretched out in thirty-five minute to forty minute albums. Condensed within the two-to three-minute format, the possibilities of 1966 are expressed with extraordinary electricity and intensity.
To fully appreciate Savage’s contention that 1966 represents a peak moment in the evolution of pop music, we need to understand that the genre of pop music was frequently derided in the 1950s and early 1960s. For many sober-minded adults who had lived through World War II, pop was mindless escapism for children and teenagers; its importance was debated, and in some cases, was regarded as only slightly more important than the hula-hoop and the yo-yo. (The best example of this is Dwight MacDonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” (1960); MacDonald dismisses action painters, Beat poets, and the entire genre of rock ’n’ roll.) Within this context, Savage argues that pop music — as an aesthetic form — achieved maturity and cultural importance in 1966, the progression seen in The Beatles, who advance from earlier innocent pop songs about love and courtship (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) to songs about existential alienation (“Eleanor Rigby”) and the experience of LSD (“Tomorrow Never Knows”).