in Frieze | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Back to the Future

The resurgence of 60s culture

in Frieze | 09 AUG 95

Now that the 16-year Conservative hegemony has reached terminal velocity, change is in the air. You could feel it in April, with the unseasonably hot weather, the local government elections, even Oasis' triumphant number one, Some Might Say. Yet as the summer rises to its zenith, change has not occurred quickly enough, and in the place of simple optimism comes frustration - expressed in riot and disorder in places far away from the capital's panoptikon: Bradford, Luton, Leeds, Portadown. Or there is the other side of direct action: the M11/M3/M55 protests, the massed crowds at Brightlingsea - single issues with implications for everybody.

There is another response. Denied any real access to the political process or to the cynical media, the desire for change goes underground, into the collective subconscious. It hasn't happened for a long time, but millenarian rumours have begun to circulate, flying like the spites out of Pandora's box: the next moon will shift the world off its axis; there has been a nuclear accident in Birmingham, covered up as a serious fire; astrological conditions - Uranus sextile Pluto - indicate a return to the mid to late 60s. Like all supra-rational phenomena, it hardly matters whether they are true, more that these ideas have currency.

If 6 was 9, Jimi Hendrix sang in 1967 and, just as his reputation has continued to rise and rise, the high 60s, that period from 1966 to 1969 so reviled by the New Right, are back back back. The indices are all over pop culture, that powerful transmitter of the shadow side: the twisted psychedelia of Drum and Bass; the interplanetary journeys of Techno; the total influence of the Kinks/Small Faces on white guitar pop; the incredible success of this year's Glastonbury Festival, that late 60s ideal, attended this year by 200,000 people; the deep mining of the period - in books, in the museums - in a way that promotes, as well as the usual stylistic fandango, a deeper understanding.

If the 60s are an issue, it is for two principal groups: the early forties upwards, passing through the midlife, seeking a return to the ideals of their adolescence after reconsuming its cultural products; and the mid to late twenties, born in that time, beginning to undertake that most poignant of odysseys, back into the time they arrived in this world. What is great about the recent testimony - Richard Neville's Hippy Hippy Shake, the Robert Whitaker exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - is just how this incredibly fertile, indeed positive moment is being reclaimed from the cynicism which - as the ultimate style degradation of Punk - shrouds the capital like a fog of petrochemicals and dust.

The cross currents of the time are well seen in the Whitaker show. An expatriate Australian, he began by photographing the Beatles, ever ahead of the game, in surrealistic configurations: a 1965 portrait of John Lennon with a dandelion placed in his eye, two years before flower power; George Harrison collaged with cut-up eyes ten years before Linder's punk dystopias; all four photographed destroying a styrofoam environment made by Carol Russell and Stuart Brisley. Whitaker's infamous 'butcher photo', of the Beatles festooned with raw meat - a comment upon Vietnam - was banned in the US, and marks the moment when the group, as the avatars of the youthful principle, moved from consumption into spirituality and activism.

Roger Whitaker's photos are fixed in, yet transcend their time. On one level, they are an accurate record of a city in transition: there are the shopfronts of Granny Takes A Trip (deco lettering and pastiche Vogue girl), Indica (a Michael English star); or Lord John with its rainbow sunrise. The single most startling image in the show - which if printed today, would be just ahead of fashion's cutting edge - is the portrait of model Jenny Roth: to quote curator David Mellor's catalogue note, 'a fabulous red-garbed Babylonian Queen, distracted and full of the ennui of long nights; her face registered across Kodak's infrared film in a faded blue, green and grey, a morbid light like the dawn in the Cheyne Walk house after the party at the end of Blow-Up.'

Here are the often unacknowledged terrors of the period, which grant it a kind of existential truth lacking from revivals like, say, Madchester (even in Northside's great A Change is on its Way). For all the lightness you can see in the photos of psychedelic Chelsea, there was the dark side - embodied in the Icarus-like trajectory of contemporary pop gods like Brian Jones and Syd Barrett, and in the very sinews of Performance (1970). As Rogan Taylor explains in his ground-breaking survey of pop shamanism, The Death and Resurrection Show: 'Though the Upperworld gods were generally pleasant and joyful, if real changes were required, it was in the other direction that efforts had to be directed. It was usually in the Underworld that sickness originated, and paradoxically there that health could be regained.'

Change is scary. The high 60s cut deep: that is what all concerned meant to do. The attraction of those dark scenes in Blow-Up (1966) and Performance is underlined by the man who designed the climactic environments in both films, Christopher Gibbs, who now characterises the high 60s as an 'alchemical experiment'. It was this millenarian fission - across aesthetics, fashion, class, sexuality, gender - that caused the period to flame so bright. This flare was soon extinguished, as is often pointed out, but that was only the surface reaction. 1966-68 sowed the seeds of several movements which continue to sprout even when you think they are dead: mass wandering; eco-awareness; exploration of inner space; unofficial spiritual paths, whether alternative therapies, astrology, or non-Western religions.

'The 60s' (which in this context means 1965-69) have had a consistently bad press over the last 20 years, first from Punks, who had to live with the fall-out, then from leading establishment figures: MPs, police chiefs, even a Prime Minister. 'Unrealistic' is one common epithet, but that is exactly the point: not only is it the business of pop to be fantastic, to break the bounds of the everyday, but, as any student of that time knows, reality itself is a concept up for grabs. Now that the New Right's construction of (a pre-50s) reality is breaking up, the reappearance of the high 60s is a harbinger of rapid change. At the same time, the renewed currency of millenarian rumours marks the first, halting lurch of the roller-coaster as it plunges towards the upcoming, thousand year deadline.